Roast turkey is the iconic symbol of Thanksgiving, but in reality it is the vegetables that fill the groaning board. Sweet potatoes, with or without marshmallows, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, and roasted or mashed winter squash, are essential. I’ve been known to make the elaborate maquechoux, a mélange that includes corn, bacon, scallions, red bell peppers, tomato and thyme and basil. My daughter Betsy is now responsible for a mélange of white and sweet potatoes, beets, squash and onions which are all roasted together.
When faced with all this delicious bounty I can’t help wondering how it made its way to my 21st century feast.
We all know that corn is native to the western hemisphere. It travelled in many directions. Christopher Columbus found it in Cuba in 1492 and brought it to France and Italy and all of southeastern Europe as well as to northern Africa. Meantime, it also travelled west to islands in the Pacific and on to China. Certainly the Pilgrims of 1620 were happy that the Wampanoags included corn in their diet. It was the caches of stored corn that they had put by and that the Pilgrims found that helped some of them get through that first winter.
The corn that we have today is quite different from the corn grown in the 1600s, but it has always been evolving because the Natives were attentive to their seed, and their seed choosing and gathering. The Hopi tribe developed a blue corn that that has more protein than regular corn. I’m not sure how blue corn made its way to Deerfield, but by 1836 it was growing in William Stoddard Williams very large garden.
Potatoes originated in South America thousands of years ago. In 1532 it was the Spanish conquistadors in Peru who began to use potatoes, especially as rations on ships returning to Spain. Once in Spain the potato did spread throughout Europe but it was only considered fodder for animals. However people did eat potatoes when desperate.
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a pharmacist who in 1754 was jailed during the Seven Years War with Prussia. He was only given potatoes to eat but he remained healthy, which made him realize what a valuable food crop potatoes were. His efforts to get poor people to eat them were not effective until he planned an inducement. He had King Louis XVI give him a piece of land outside Paris and planted a potato field. He had that field guarded day and night, making people believe the crop was very valuable. Then when the potatoes were ready for harvest he gave the guards the night off. Many of the potatoes were stolen and their reputation began to change.
The benefits of potatoes were apparent to educated people and rulers of European countries supported their cultivation.
Potatoes have been known to stave off starvation when grain crops failed. The advantage to potatoes is that they grow underground and are not susceptible to the winds and storms that knock down fields of grain making them useless. Nowadays potatoes are considered one of the most nutritious foods you can eat, as long as you don’t deep fry them, or load them up with butter or sour cream.
Spanish conquistadors also discovered sweet potatoes in South America. They took them back to Spain where they rapidly spread across Europe. White potatoes of the nightshade family may have been considered only fit for pigs, but the sweet potatoes of the morning glory family were considered a treat and delight. No one had to be urged to eat sweet potatoes which are even richer in nutrients than white potatoes.
Winter squash is another vegetable that originated in the South and Central America. It is versatile and can be roasted, used in soups, or mashed into breads. It is another extremely nutritious vegetable, a good source of vitamin A, C, and E. It travelled up into North America and was an important food for Massachusetts Natives. That was fortunate for the Pilgrims who then learned about them from the Wampanoags who included them in their healthy diet.
A necessity of the Thanksgiving feast is the onion, creamed, or cut up to add savor to soup or turkey stuffing. There are no fossilized onions to help the record but it is thought that onions had been cultivated in the Middle East for 5000 years or more. It is safe to say that over 1000 years ago onions were a staple of European diets. The Pilgrims brought onion seeds with them on the Mayflower, but when they started dealing with the Natives they saw that they had been using wild onions in their meals.
In a Smithsonian article Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, says that it is unlikely that turkey was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. The written record mostly describes the meat that went on the table, including goose and duck, possibly swan and passenger pigeon. The small birds could have been stuffed with onions and herbs. The Wampanoags brought five deer, possibly fish, lobster and clams as well. The feast lasted for three days.
Most of us will not go hunting for our Thanksgiving feast. And the feast will not last for three days. But we can all be grateful for the rich land that we live on here in western Massachusetts and the developments in vegetables and fruits that make even our every day meals a veritable feast.
Between the Rows November 12, 2016