• Henriett Hajdu

Turkey, Chile Stuffing, Crab, Key Lime Pie


Thanksgiving is a particularly American holiday. The word evokes images of football, family reunions, roasted turkey with stuffing, pumpkin pie, and of course, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, the acknowledged founders of the feast.

For many Americans, the Thanksgiving meal includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. The holiday feast dates back to November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth for an autumn harvest celebration, an event regarded as America's "first Thanksgiving". But what was really on the menu at the famous banquet, and which of today's time-honored favorites didn't earn a place at the table until later in the holiday's 400-year history?

TURKEY

While no records exist of the exact bill of fare, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony's governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a "fowling" mission in preparation for the three-day event. Wild - but not domestic - turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and native Americans. But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese, and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.

Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving's attendees almost certainly got their fill of meat. Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer were roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire and that the colonists might have used some of the venison to whip up a hearty stew.

FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims' first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on a bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmenal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.

Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye. The Pilgrims might have been familiar with cranberries by the first Thanksgiving, but they wouldn't have made sauces and relishes with the tart orbs. That's because the sacks of sugar that traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower were nearly or fully depleted by November 1621. Cooks didn't begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment for meats until 50 years later.

FISH AND SHELLFISH

Culinary historians believe that much of the Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood, which is often absent from today's menus. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams, and oysters might also have been part of the feast.

POTATOES

Whether mashed or roasted, white or sweet, potatoes had no place at the first Thanksgiving. After encountering it in its native South America, the Spanish began introducing the potato to Europeons around 1570. But by the time the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower, the tuber had neither doubled back to North America nor become popular enough with the English to hitch a ride. New England's native inhabitants are known to have eaten other plant roots such as Indian turnips and groundnuts, which they may or may not have brought to the party.

PUMPKIN PIE

Both the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to New England - possibly even during the harvest festival - but the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flower ncessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn't yet constructed an oven for baking. According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey, and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds in hot ashes.

In the 19th century, as the holiday spread across the country, local cooks modified the menu both by choice ("this is what we like to eat") and by necessity ("this is what we have to eat"). Today, many Americans delight in giving regional produce, recipes and seasonings a place on the Thanksgiving table. In New Mexico, chiles and other southwestern flavors are used in stuffing, while on the Chesapeake Bay, the local favorite, crab, often shows up as a holiday appetizer or as an ingredient in dressing. In Minnesota, the turkey might be stuffed with wild rice, and in Washington State, locally grown hazelnuts are featured in stuffing and desserts. In Indiana, persimmon puddings are a favorite Thanksgiving dessert, and in Key West, key lime pie joins pumpkin pie on the holiday table. Some specialties have even become ubiquitous regional additions to local Thanksgiving menus; in Baltimore, for instance, it is common to find sauerkraut alongside the turkey.

Most of these regional variations have remained largely a local phenomenon, a means of connecting with local harvests and specialty foods. However this is not true of influential southern Thanksgiving trends that had a tremendous impact on the 20th-century Thanksgiving menu.

Whatever your Thanksgiving fare may consist of, we at Tri County Title Loans sincerely wish you a HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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