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November 23. 2013 9:24PM

A short course on the long history of Thanksgiving foods

Ask the people around the table on Thursday about the history of Thanksgiving, and most will say something about the Pilgrims. If any Floridians or Southwesterners are present, you might find yourself in a debate about whether the first feast was held at Plymouth, St. Augustine or El Paso. Only a few might mention the Civil War.

True, settlers in English and Spanish colonies celebrated thanksgivings in their earliest years. And throughout the 1800s, New Englanders held such observances with their families and friends. But as a national commemoration, the holiday dates to 1863. That year, President Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving holiday, even as the Civil War was raging.

So why, then, do we associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims? In the late 1800s, with immigrants - Jews, Italians, Chinese, other outsiders - pouring in, America's cultural leaders took two bits of shaky historic evidence from the early 1600s and embraced a story of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in an effort to Americanize an increasingly diverse population.

Apple cider

Cider was once the national beverage. Later, unfermented, sweet cider would become more common on American tables, but before the mid-1800s, the hard stuff was the drink of choice for Americans - New Englanders most of all. Introduced to North America from Europe, apple trees grew well in the temperate climate, with many New England families pressing cider from their own orchards.

Production was so successful that in 1767, Massachusetts colonists drank an estimated average of 35 gallons of cider per person. Many believed it was more healthful and safer to drink than water. Cider was much more than a substitute for clean water, however. The good life, a young John Adams wrote in 1765, consisted of having "Bacon, and Cyder, and Books and Girl and Friend."

Turkey

The bird on many Americans' Thanksgiving tables today might be about the only thing that connects our national holiday with the romanticized meal in 1621 shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans and studied by so many generations of American schoolchildren.

William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, tells us in his account of the colony's early years that settlers' diets that fall included wild turkey along with venison, cod, bass, waterfowl and corn. The turkeys might have been quite welcome to the newcomers in their harsh and unfamiliar new surroundings. Thanks to their Spanish imperial rivals, the English had been enjoying the meaty bird for decades. Spaniards had encountered turkeys in their early forays in the New World and had brought the fowl back home.

Cranberry sauce

Although certain varieties of cranberry grow in parts of Europe, the turkey's most popular dinner companion tells a story of New World cultural exchange. The fruit's name is a legacy of 17th century German settlers in America. Called in medieval England "moss-berry" and other similar terms that allude to the fruit's boggy habitat, English-speakers borrowed their German neighbors' term "kranberee," which refers to the long, cranelike stamens of the plant.

The fruit's use draws on native food culture. Indigenous peoples had long raised and eaten the berries. A 1672 account of the colonies reported that "Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat." Cranberry sauce has been paired with turkey, in particular, since at least the 18th century.

Oyster stuffing

Americans have been stuffing turkeys with oysters for centuries. Now a treat, oysters were once plentiful and for centuries were the most commonly eaten shellfish in America. At home, cooks filled turkeys and other birds with oysters to stretch the pricier fowl. They also made loaves, sauces, pies, soups and stews with the inexpensive protein.

Eaten as cooked food at home, oysters were often consumed raw from street carts, typically run by African Americans who found grueling but independent work in the oyster trade. Americans also ate their favorite shellfish at the oyster saloons that proliferated in the 19th century.

Sweet potatoes with marshmallows

For many, the Thanksgiving meal must include sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The happy marriage of the tuber with caramelized, gooey goodness owes itself to two developments of the 1800s.

In the late part of the century, in the decades when the national Thanksgiving holiday took hold, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes - long eaten in the South - and incorporated them into the special meal.

Meanwhile, marshmallows had been recently invented by those culinary trendsetters, the French, who beat the roots of the marshmallow plant with egg whites and sugar to make a chewy treat.

In 1917, the Angelus Marshmallows company distributed a recipe booklet that taught Americans how they might use marshmallows. With that, the classic pairing had arrived.

Rice

Whether it's served with beans, in risotto or pilaf, as a stuffing or simply steamed, rice has a leading place at our national meal. It also has always had a leading place as an American export crop.

In the British American colonies, rice farming began in the 1600s and relied on enslaved Africans who supplied not only the brutally hard labor but also the knowledge of rice cultivation that made the crop succeed.

Today, the United States is the third-largest rice-exporting nation in the world, with the rice industry now centered in Arkansas.

Pumpkin pie

The quintessential pie marries an indigenous American food already familiar to English colonists, thanks to the vegetable's introduction to Europe in the 1500s, with an economical English culinary tradition of filling crust with meat, vegetable or fruit. Colonists cultivated pumpkin from their earliest years in the New World, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes from the 1600s.

The dessert did not often show up on Thanksgiving tables until the early 1800s, but by later in the century, pumpkin pies were so closely associated with the holiday that in 1869, the (Hartford) Connecticut Courant referred to the pie, along with turkey, as the "inevitable" Thanksgiving dishes.


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