Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Native Foods On The Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving-BrownscombeThe winter of 1620 nearly wiped out the Pilgrims, who were woefully unprepared for life in the New world. Many historians feel they would all have perished if not for food provided by the Wampanoags, on whose land they settled. The following spring, the Wampanoags provided the Pilgrims with seeds to plant, as well as a tutorial (possibly an App, but we can’t be sure) on the production, storage and preservation of food crops such as corn, beans, and squash.

That fall – we’re not even sure if it was October or November – the Pilgrims gave thanks for Native American agriculture, and feasted upon its bounty for three days straight. The Wampanoags probably gave thanks that there wasn’t another ship full of Pilgrims on the horizon just then.

If the Pilgrims had only known what a big deal Thanksgiving was going to become in America, they would undoubtedly have taken some pictures, or at least invited the press. As it was, the exact menu is lost to history, but Wampanoag oral history, as well as some brief written accounts, indicate that there was indeed – surprise – corn, beans and squash, in addition to fowl and venison. Beyond that there may have been chestnuts, sun chokes (Jerusalem artichokes), cranberries and seafood.

Barley was the one European-sourced crop that the Pilgrims managed to raise in 1621. Unfortunately, they seemed unaware it could be eaten. The up side of that, though, was that there was beer that Thanksgiving.

While corn, beans and squash, “The Three Sisters,” were (and are) grown by many Native peoples in the Americas, other indigenous crops will grace our Thanksgiving tables this year. Maybe you’ll have appetizers out for company before dinner. Mixed nuts, anyone? Peanuts are a big-time Native American crop. Pecans and sunflower seeds, too. And everyone likes corn chips with dip, right? Those hot (and sweet) peppers and tomatoes in the salsa are Native American foods. Prefer avocado dip? Yep, another native food.

Of course turkeys are indigenous to the New World, but so are a lot of the “fixings.” Pass the (New World) cranberry sauce, please. How about some mashed potatoes to go with that gravy? It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without potatoes. White (“Irish”) potatoes are a New World crop, as are sweet potatoes. We can thank Native American agronomists for green beans, and Lima beans too. Pass the squash – Native peoples developed many varieties of squash, including Hubbard squash and pumpkins, which are technically a winter squash.

Which brings us to dessert. Specifically to the iconic Thanksgiving pumpkin pie – I think just about everyone is thankful for that treat. But wait, there’s more. Let’s have ice cream with our pie (provided we don’t have serious cholesterol issues). Maple-walnut, perhaps? Those two indigenous flavors go well together. Vanilla is from the Americas, and so is chocolate. If you add some toppings like strawberry, pineapple or blueberry sauce, you’ll be having more Native American foods for dessert.

I hope you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving filled with family and gratitude. Among other things, we can be grateful to native peoples and their crops. But please, don’t blame them if you eat a little more than you had intended.

Illustration: Part of painting “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

One Response

  1. Bruce says:

    I realize Mr. Hetzler’s look at the first Thanksgiving was somewhat tongue in cheek, but it might be noted that some of the New World staple foods mentioned came from parts of the Americas which had hardly been explored by that time. For example, potatoes which came from South America possibly were not available. However other native northern hemisphere foods would have been available, such as walnuts, beechnuts, and hickory nuts.

    It’s possible fish made up a major part of the diet because the streams and rivers were full of easily caught brook trout, along with seasonal runs of atlantic salmon. According to historical sources, the runs of salmon were so heavy, it was against the law to feed one’s indentured servants salmon more than 3 times a week. Wish I were there, lol.

    While not a foodstuff, the outer walnut hulls make an easily obtained brown dye for clothes, so I suspect that once their clothing from England started being replaced, brown would have become a predominate color.

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