Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Food, Foodies, and Historians

I suspect today many Americans are, today, confirming menus, making last minute trips to the store for forgotten items, baking and generally preparing for tomorrow’s big feast.  Typically tables will be overflowing with turkey, gravy (giblet, please), stuffing/dressing, sweet potato casserole (with marshmallows on top), white potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, pecan pie and a whole slew of other items particular to each individual family.  

All things considered, Turkey is a late comer to American tables as the Thanksgiving centerpiece.  Didn’t become popular until the early 1900’s. 

According to Food Historians (and who knew there was such a thing), at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the main meat sources were venison, passenger pigeon, goose, duck, swan, eels, shellfish, and, probably, wild turkey.  There were no potatoes, sweet or otherwise (those hadn’t made it up from South America and the Caribbean).  And no cranberry sauce (no sugar). No pies (no wheat flour).  Bread – probably yes but made from maize flour.  Stuffing was made from onions, herbs, and nuts.  Squash, maize, and beans – yes.  And, omg – there was likely no beer – just water to drink.  Still, in 1621, a glorious feast shared by all.

How about some fun facts about some of the first Thanksgiving foods –

Three Sisters – maize, beans, squash.  These were introduced to early colonists by the Wampanoag and is one of the best illustrations of companion planting.  As older sisters often do, the maize (corn) offers the beans needed support.  The beans, the giving sister, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three.  As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together.  The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds.  The prickly squash leaves also keep away raccoons, which don’t like to step on them.  By the way, this is a great way still to plant.

Eels were a staple in European and early American diets though they’ve fallen from favor here.  And, by the way, regardless of how they look, eels are a fish.  They can be found from north to south, east to west, most often in tidal pools or mud flats.  They can be boiled, fried, broiled, soup, pie, collared, pickled, stuffed, fricasseed, jellied, smoked, or baked.  Eels helps to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and chances of arthritis. It enhances the development of brain, good eyesight and functions of nervous system.  Hmmmm – enhancing brain development - maybe we as Americans should start thinking of them as a food source again.

Passenger Pigeons were a good sized bird – 15-16 inches in length.  They were a very popular food source.  They lived all over North America, as many as 3-5 billion at one point.  They could fly as fast as a gazelle could run, upwards of 60mph.  They only laid one egg at a time.  And they’ve been extinct since 1914 due to hunting and deforestation.  I hope we’re getting smarter about hunting and destroying natural homes for the rest of the animals on this planet, including ourselves.

Of course, I have to include Turkey even though it wasn’t the centerpiece in 1621.  Wild turkeys can fly, but domestic turkeys cannot.  Turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour.  Male turkeys are called “gobblers,” after the “gobble” call they make to announce themselves to females (which are called “hens”). Other turkey sounds include “purrs,” “yelps” and “kee-kees.”  There are approximately 5,500 feathers on an adult wild turkey, including 18 tail feathers that make up the male's distinct fan.  The wild turkey was hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1900s, but restoration programs across North America have brought the numbers up to seven million today.  Maybe we are getting a little smarter.

Well, Happy Thanksgiving to all.  This is what I’ll be doing and I’m thankful that I can.

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