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A History of Thanksgiving Plants

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Ever wondered how we ended up eating certain plants on Thanksgiving? Here’s a look into the origins of 4 fruits and vegetables that commonly show up at the Thanksgiving meal.

Potatoes

While turkey is undoubtedly the star of Thanksgiving dinner, the side dishes that show off the individual talents of the holiday chef are the celebrity supporting cast.

Potatoes as we know them may not have made an appearance at the very first Thanksgiving, as history suggests that they may not have been introduced to New England yet. However, the Native Americans did eat a variety of tubers that were native to the area, which they most likely brought to the feast.

Sweet potatoes joined the feast after the civil war, as southern chefs jumped on the chance to show off their regional dishes. One of the earliest methods of documented preparation comes from the slaves on plantations who worked as cane sugar-boiling men. The men would take a dish of sweet potatoes and ladle the boiling sugar over it, which was so hot that it cooked the potatoes as it cooled down. Delicious!

Pumpkins

One of the most anticipated flavors of fall, pumpkins have been a staple in American autumn cuisine since the settling of the country. Smaller and more tart cousins to our current beloved orange squash, pumpkins were useful to our ancestors mainly due to their long shelf life, providing a fresh vegetable months after most gardens had yielded their crops. Preparation included cooking the squash for an entire day, then adding spices and butter for flavor, or scooping out the seeds, adding some ginger-spiced milk, and then roasting the shell on the fire.

Sweet pumpkin dishes became a staple at holiday dinners during the 17th century, and by the time Thanksgiving was declared an official holiday by President Lincoln during the Civil War, pumpkin pie had earned its place of honor at the top of the list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Fast forward to modern day - traditional pumpkin pie remains a favorite; so much so, in fact, that recipes incorporating pumpkin into coffee drinks, smoothies, cakes, cookies, candy, ice cream, and sweet breads have become a highly anticipated treat in the autumnal months.

Cranberries

The Cranberry - one of only 3 fruits native to North America - is so closely associated with its mashed-up, purple-red, sauce-for-spreading-on-turkey identity that most cooks don’t realize the plethora of other uses for the tart fruit. Native Americans used the cranberry juice as a dye, mixed it with deer meat to make pemmican (think the original protein bar), and praised its highly nutritious value (before fizzy vitamin C was cool). It grows in boggy, swampy areas of New England and the Pacific Northwest, so it is no surprise that it shows up in the early recordings of Thanksgiving dinners, being readily available and fresh at just the right time of the year. Cranberry bogs, which thrive in otherwise unusable boggy land, became vital to the New England economy; some bogs over 100 years old still produce crops to this day.

Quick fact: Americans consume 400 million pounds of cranberries a year; 20% of that during Thanksgiving week.

Corn

Corn was undoubtedly at the first ever Thanksgiving harvest feast, as it was a celebration that the first corn harvest was successful. The Pilgrims, with supplies all but gone, learned from the Native Americans about the crops that thrived in the area, and corn was (and continues to be) one of the staple crops in Native American culture. A complex planting system called the Three Sisters had a trifecta of mutually beneficial crops - corn, beans, and squash - growing in the same area. The corn (or maize) grew to provide vertical support to the vining bean plants, which provided nitrogen via the bacteria living on the roots, and squash plants provided plentiful ground cover that stopped weeds from sprouting while inhibiting evaporation through natural shade.

The method of preparation is likely different from the first harvest feasts, though, as historical documents suggest that the corn would have been removed from the cob and ground into cornmeal, then boiled down and turned into a thick corn mush or porridge. Occasionally sweetened with molasses, it was a far cry from our buttery sweet corn dishes of today, but was and continues to be a repeat at Thanksgiving meals.


Tags: Native Plants, Seasonal

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