FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

A Brief History of Thanksgiving Foods

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English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“ The turkey is certainly one of the most delightful presents which the New World has made to the Old.”  Brillat Savarin.

Most of the traditional Thanksgiving foods we now eat on this holiday are foods that originated or were Native to the Americas. The word for turkey in French is dinde, short for poulet d’inde since they thought that the turkey came from the West Indies of Columbus days.  The turkey was popular in England before the Pilgrims came in 1620.

Turkeys don’t migrate so they were some of the first Native Americans and were available all year.  Turkeys are easy to hunt – when one is shot, the others freeze in place.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t encourage shooting turkeys – we have lots of wild turkeys here in Western North Carolina. Many times I’ve had to stop and wait until they cross the road.  I once encountered a few hens walking in the woods, followed by a male who wanted to impress them by making a racket and spreading his tail feathers – of course, the “girls” totally ignored him and went on without a nod – I kind of felt sorry for him

Potatoes had reached Europe early in the Columbian Exchange (thanks to Christopher Columbus).  Potatoes had an interesting history – they were native to Peru, a Spanish colony and enemy of England, and went from Peru to Europe and then returned to New Hampshire with Scottish-Irish settlers in 1723.  It is thought that the idea of mashing them with butter and milk also came form Scottish-Irish influence.

Cranberries were native to New England. Cranberries and blueberries were mashed with sour milk and used as paint as well as for food.  To this day, these colors or variations of these colors are used in New England colonial homes.

Many types of squash had reached Europe, but pumpkin was unknown at that time. Pumpkin was used in the early colonies, but did not appear in cookbooks until Amelia Simmons in 1796 wrote the first printed American cookbook.  She referred to it as “pomkin”.  You may prefer pecan pie – and these are also of American origin.  Originating in central and eastern North America and the river valleys of Mexico, pecans were widely used by pre-colonial residents.

Cornbread and sweet potatoes (both being native to the Americas) round out our traditional Thanksgiving fare. Archaeological studies indicate that corn was cultivated in the Americas at least 5600 years ago and American Indians were growing corn long before Europeans landed here. The probable center off origin is the Central American and Mexico region but since the plant is found only under cultivation, no one can be sure.

The sweet potato has a rich history and interesting origin. It is one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind. Scientists believe that the sweet potato was domesticated thousands of years ago in Central America. Christopher Columbus took sweet potatoes back home to Europe after his first 1492 voyage. Sweet potatoes spread through Asia and Africa after being introduced in China in the late 16th century.

So as you enjoy your Thanksgiving this year, give thanks to the Americas for our traditional foods that are truly “made in America”.

BTW –Many of the foods we find on our Thanksgiving table today, weren’t  available back when the colonists celebrated the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth.  The first historical descriptions of the first Thanksgiving do not mention turkey – only “wild fowl” (not identified) and five deer.  The party was in 1621 with fifty-one Pilgrim men, women, and children hosting ninety men of the Wampanoag tribe and their chief, Massasoit.  It was in the fall to celebrate the good harvest of corn (wheat and barley weren’t as successful) and lasted three days.

Have a great Thanksgiving Day from Food, Facts & Fads.  SJF

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