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The Holiday Menu’s Story

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, traces the history of the Thanksgiving menu and gives us ideas of how to incorporate the past into our present fare, including a recipe for acorn squash custard.

I was always interested in history. Becoming an archeologist was one of my childhood dreams that did not come true. With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided to do a little digging. Together with my children, I wanted to learn more about what food historians have to tell us about the origins of the Thanksgiving menu.

Food history seems to be a fun interdisciplinary field. It examines food in the context of cultural, historical, social, and economic circumstances. Its methods include archeological research and go as far as, for example, studying pollen found at the Plymouth Plantation. The goal of this particular inquiry is to find out what the Pilgrims grew in their gardens. I am not sure how hundreds-of-years-old pollen gets preserved, found and identified, but I find this kind of research fascinating.

As we all know, the origins of Thanksgiving celebration go back to 1621. The three-day feast of Pilgrims and the local Native Americans was, of course, not called “Thanksgiving”, and it was not intended to start a tradition. It was simply a harvest celebration (present in most cultures in some form) with festivities that we hardly miss today (think: hunting). Thanksgiving was later celebrated on and off, but only became a tradition and a national holiday much later. This was partly thanks to the perseverance of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. I have learned in the course of my “digging” that she was the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book—sort of the Martha Stewart of her time—a trendsetter for everything household related. Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned 13 presidents (beginning in 1827) with the idea of establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. President James Polk hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner in the White House in 1845, but the holiday wasn’t officially established yet. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Hale pitched the idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. This time it worked. Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Food historians tell us that they are quite sure about the foods that were not on the table during the 1621 harvest festival, but there is less certainty regarding what foods were actually on the menu.

We know that a lot of meat was eaten; the kind of meat and poultry that most likely won’t be part of our Thanksgiving dinner.  We would like to think that the Pilgrims enjoyed some turkey as we do today. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. There was an abundance of wild turkeys in the area, but there is no proof that turkey was actually served during the 1621 harvest celebration. If it was served, it certainly wasn’t the centerpiece of the dinner table.  Local wild fowl (ducks, geese, possibly swans) were prepared, and we know for sure that there was plenty of venison to go around. Seafood was certainly part of the menu; most likely lobster, oysters, clams, and possibly bass.

As for the preparation of the food, boiling and roasting were the two methods employed. Big pieces of meat or whole birds were roasted on spits, while the open hearth in the house was used for other cooking.

The birds might have been stuffed with onions, herbs and nuts, but not wheat bread stuffing. The Pilgrims did not have wheat flour, so bread stuffing was off the menu and so were pies. Not only there was no flour, there wasn’t any butter for the pie crust or even an oven for baking. At that time, the Pilgrims hadn’t constructed an oven yet. But they did not give up on pumpkin based desserts. They improvised by filling a hollowed out pumpkin with milk, honey and spices, and roasting it in hot ashes. Voilà, pumpkin custard!

Locally available vegetables such as wild onion, leeks, squash, Jerusalem artichokes, and beans were cooked. Probably some English crops (turnip, cabbage, parsnip, onion, thyme, rosemary, carrots) grown from seeds brought from Europe were available. To know for sure, we need the above mentioned pollen research.

As for other side dishes, corn in the form of porridge and sweet corn pudding was served (but not corn on the cob). Two of our favorites, potatoes and sweet potatoes, can be ruled out. Potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, had yet to reach North America. Cranberries were available and perhaps present on the table, but not in the form of sweetened cranberry sauce. Today we take the availability of sugar for granted, but the Pilgrims had none, since by the fall of 1621 they ran out of the sugar brought from overseas.

Over the course of history, The Thanksgiving menu has evolved into what it is today. There was a roasted turkey and there were mashed potatoes on the menu printed in The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. At the same time, this menu included many items that we hardly associate with the Thanksgiving dinner (oyster soup, sterling sauce, chicken pie, and fruit pudding).

Most of us perceive Thanksgiving not only as a harvest festival but – more than anything else – a family celebration.  On our Thanksgiving table, food history meets family history. Each of our menus is most likely a combination of the usual Thanksgiving menu items with those unique to our family. Like every family, every menu has its own story worth “digging” up.


Squash Custard in Squash Shell

My children were intrigued by the idea of pumpkin custard baked in a pumpkin shell. We decided to improvise and to create our own recipe for acorn squash custard. We liked what we made. This recipe is a tasty and healthy alternative to a more conventional seasonal dessert.

1 small acorn squash
1 egg
¼ cup milk
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny bit of ground cloves

Cut the squash in half. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds. The seeds won’t be needed for this recipe, but they can be roasted and enjoyed as a snack.

Scoop out about half of the squash flesh and put it in a small mixing bowl. The squash shell will serve as a baking and serving “dish” for the custard.

In another bowl whisk the egg, then add milk, maple syrup, cornstarch, vanilla extract, and the spices. Mix together.

Put the two halved pieces of squash into a small baking dish.  Carefully fill the squash with the milk and squash mixture. Bake in a preheated oven on 350 F for 30-40 minutes or until the filling is set and the flesh around the shell has soften.

The custard can be enjoyed warm or cold.

 

The Season of Squash

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, describes one of fall’s most notable vegetables and some imaginative uses for it.

If summer is the peak in the circle of the seasons, then winter is the valley, and fall is a gentle stroll downhill into the land of winter. Fall is a season that brings no promises, but instead, it gives a lot on the spot. To compensate for cooler weather, it warms us with colors of gold, orange, rusty browns and reds, and nourishes us with an abundant harvest. The dominant taste of the season is sweet. Fall treats us with the sweetness of ripe wine grapes, fresh apples and apple cider, roasted squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnip. Towards the end of the growing season, peppers in the garden turn not only red, but also sweet; so too do many leafy greens, as temperatures drop.

There is a lot one could do on a nice fall day, and there are lots of ways to engage children in seasonal activities. So much can be done with just some winter squash and pumpkin (which is also a type of winter squash). One could carve a pumpkin of course, visit a farm for a pick-your-own pumpkin event, decorate the house with pumpkins or squash, or use them as materials for craft projects.

Any type of pumpkin or winter squash will bring the feel of autumn into our homes, but gourds are especially sought after as a seasonal decoration. While not edible, they can be used to craft functional objects; such as birdhouses, bowls, vessels for liquids, instruments, or even gnome homes. With a little imagination they can be turned into improvised toys. Their unusual shapes will make our kids think of dinosaurs, daisies, dumplings, swans, and who knows what else.

A French heirloom pumpkin, Rouge vif D’Etampes, also known as a Cinderella Pumpkin, will transport us into the realm of fairy tales without the magic touch of the Fairy Godmother. It is a fairly large pumpkin of vivid orange color, with a flattened and heavily lobed shape, resembling the fairy tale carriage of Cinderella–hence its name. I imagine it would be fun to use one of these to create a carriage for a favorite doll or a dwelling for a magical creature visiting your backyard. According to some sources, this variety had been cultivated by the Pilgrims and served at the second Thanksgiving dinner. Besides being the perfect pumpkin pie ingredient, it can serve as a lovely biodegradable serving dish for a squash soup. If simply put on a table or shelf it will be a statement in itself. Another French variety, Musque de Provence (or Fairytale Pumpkin), has similar great looks and qualities.

The sweet harvest is waiting to be embraced in the kitchen too. Winter squash can be enjoyed simply roasted, or mashed with a bit of cream and a dash of nutmeg for a side dish, used in soups, or in muffins and sweet breads. Acorn Squash or other smaller types like Baby Hubbard and Japanese Futsu can be filled with a variety of stuffing and baked. The flesh of pumpkin and succulent winter squashes works well as a filling for pumpkin pie. Seeds and fiber of any edible winter squash can be used for stock or as a snack for a flock of chickens. Pumpkin also offers edible seeds that taste great roasted. Aside from the high fat content, pumpkin seeds have abundant protein and lots of trace minerals (zinc, manganese, magnesium, copper and iron.) Even better for seeds than pumpkin is Kakai Squash. This medium-sized, slightly oblate squash with orange and dark green stripes is grown and valued for its hull-less or naked seeds. Instead of a shell, the seeds are covered with a thin cellophane-like membrane. Since they do not require shelling, one is tempted to eat them fast, and the possibility of overeating is very high for everyone who loves the taste of freshly roasted pepitas. If there are any left after snack time, they can be used as an addition to your granolas, salads, pumpkin soup, breads, or rolls.

While munching on a handful of pumpkin seeds the other day, I found myself thinking about winter, and realized that I felt a certain melancholy about it being just around the corner. I sometimes find it hard to enjoy fall, because winter is next, with its cold and short days. But I’d like to be fair to this season of abundance, so I am reminding myself of all of Fall’s sweetness and gifts; stay in the moment, stay present to all of the beauty that is in it.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 (From A Fresh Pumpkin)

Do not discard seeds from your pumpkin intended for carving. You can make a Jack O’ Lantern and a great snack from the same pumpkin.

Scrape the seeds from the pumpkin with a large spoon. Clean away the stringy flesh. Rinse the seeds with water if needed. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and let them dry for several hours in your kitchen or on a sunny spot outdoors. The seeds are now ready for roasting and seasoning.

I prefer my pepitas dry-roasted without any seasoning, but they can be flavored with a variety of spices.  Most children will appreciate Pumpkin Spice Pepitas.

Dry-Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Spread the seeds in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Seeds should be golden and crunchy when done.

Pumpkin Spice Pepitas

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 – 1 ½  teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • ¼ teaspoon fine salt

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Combine all ingredients and spread in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through.