As you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, keep in mind that it was America's original locavore feast. Of course, back then nearly every meal was local. What you ate was what you raised or obtained in trade from neighbors, and the closest thing to imports were the vinegar-soaked beef and hard cheese that the Pilgrims brought to the new world. What happened next is gastronomic legend. To celebrate making it through the first winter, the Pilgrims used their successful first harvest of corn, squash, beans, and other local delicacies to throw a special meal of thanks in late September or early October of 1621. Governor William Bradford said that the settlers should "rejoice together...after a manner more special." The unexpected arrival of a hundred Pakanoket natives bearing five deer soon turned a pious meal of thanks into a three-day celebration.
No one knows exactly what foods were served that first Thanksgiving. All we can say for sure is that they were certainly local and largely indigenous. Food historians think the feast likely consisted of cod, eel, clams, lobster, wild turkey, goose, duck, venison, seal, corn, pumpkin, squash, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes, parsnips, carrots, wild plums and grapes, dried berries, walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns.
Dishes were probably prepared using traditional Pakanoket spices and cooking methods. What's really interesting nearly four hundred years after the first Thanksgiving is just how much of the original menu survives on our tables today. Okay, we won't be eating any seal in my house. But we will serve turkey, corn, beans, onions, squash, pumpkin, and berries. Much of it will be locally grown, and like the Pilgrim's feast, the menu will focus on foods native to America.
Along those lines, I present two recipes -- one for succotash and one for pumpkin pie -- for your consideration:
SUCCOTASH (serves eight)
From the Narragansett term "msíckquatash" which means "boiled corn kernels," succotash is a dish with a serious native American pedigree. This recipe returns it to those origins with a uniquely "local" flavor that puts modern versions to shame. One of the easiest and earliest recipes adopted by European settlers, the original dish was sweetened with bear fat. Here, thankfully, we substitute an easy-to-make walnut butter.
1 onion (chopped)
1 green pepper (chopped)
1 cup water
2 cups shelled lima beans or other shell beans
2 cups corn
Walnut butter to taste (see recipe below)
Combine all the ingredients but the walnut butter in a large covered pot and simmer for 20 minutes or until the beans and corn are tender. Remove from heat and stir in walnut butter until the mixture has a slightly sweet taste. Serve hot. To make the nut butter, just put a cup or two of shelled walnuts in a food processor and process them until they're as powdered or otherwise pulverized as possible. With the food processor running, drizzle honey into the mix until a thick paste forms. Mmmmm, wicked good.
PUMPKIN PIE (serves one if you're me…)
This recipe isn't quite as old as succotash, but it does date back to the colonial era, when pumpkin pies were first created and almost immediately institutionalized as a Thanksgiving necessity. I think this pie is better with fresh pumpkin, which you can prepare by cutting a pumpkin into eights and baking the fruit at 325 degrees until tender, then scraping it from the skin, and pureeing the result. Look for small heirloom pumpkins with a lattice of white raised "veins" on their surface. But canned pumpkin will work fine, too. Either way, it is the Best. Pumpkin pie. EVER. (In my humble opinion.)
Pastry for a one-crust pie
2 cups cooked pumpkin
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup whole milk
2 eggs well beaten
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup brandy
Prepare your pastry, line your pie tin, and refrigerate it until needed. Combine pumpkin, sugar, spices, and salt in a mixing bowl. Beat in milk, eggs, cream, and brandy. Pour into the pie tin and bake in a preheated 325° oven for an hour or until a knife inserted into the center comes out dry. Cool and serve to guests who will go out of their gourd and henceforth worship the ground on which you walk for creating such a sublimely delicious pie. Happy Thanksgiving from Seventh Generation!
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!