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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.

 

A Forager’s Thanksgiving

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes his forager’s feast, and it sounds so good that one can almost taste it.

Every year since 2011, I have come together with a group of fellow wild crafters to celebrate Thanksgiving with a forager’s feast.

We begin planning in October, when there is still plenty to be foraged, although some of us even gather and preserve seasonal food throughout the year, in anticipation of our yearly gathering.

Anyone hearing of a wild foods feast may imaging barely eatable dishes made from weeds. But quite to the contrary, many of our number are excellent chefs, and produce some delicious and imaginative culinary creations.The dishes that arrive at our pot luck gathering may contain such gourmet ingredients as Maitaki or Chicken of the Woods mushrooms, wild fruits such as Autumn olives and Mayapples, and game such as venison or partridge. We also incorporate common wild foods such as Stinging nettles, Chickweed, Dandelion, and acorns.

In addition to using the leaves, we grind and roast the dandelion roots for “coffee”.  We process the acorns to make flour for creating exotic nutty crusts for our pies and pastries.

Drinks range from home-made kombucha to Dandelion wine.

We always look forward to these gatherings, to enjoy the delicious food and great company. No matter what sort of feast you’ll be having this Thanksgiving, I hope it makes you feel the same way.

 

Truth to Power

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an early lesson in speaking his truth…

When I was sixteen years old, back in 1969, Richard Nixon was still in his first year as president of the country and, having campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, he had yet to do anything but justify its continuance. I snuck off to Manhattan on the weekends and attended some anti-war rallies and walked among beautiful young hippies who sang folk songs about love, and peace, and justice. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both killed trying to bring peace and justice to the nation. So, my visits to Washington Square Park were to be in a place of hope for a better future. It was there I first met some of our returning veterans who talked of speaking truth to power. It was all so worldly and so beyond my experience growing up in the Village of Hillburn, but I remember the veterans emphasized that the only way to speak truth to power was to do it on a personal level, from the heart.

That Thanksgiving, we were having relatives join us from Nova Scotia, Canada. Among them was an in-law named Hughie. Now, this Hughie was a great admirer of my dad, Walt. Hughie was a hunter and he loved Walt’s hunting stories. Hughie sponsored hunting trips in Canada for his father-in-law and Walt to go on. He regularly sent wild game down from Nova Scotia for Walt. And when Hughie came down to hunt in the states, he regularly defied the hunting laws. He was a big, powerful presence and had little regard for local regulations. And Hughie considered me the inheritor of Walt’s role in Ramapo Woodlore; I was (in his mind) the one who would carry on Walt’s traditions.

However, I was deer hunting only a week before Thanksgiving, when I was shot at by careless hunter. It was a close call and not my first. I declared that this was nonsense and that too much of legalized hunting was carried on by dangerous weekend pioneers. I quit hunting right then and there (and, anyhow, I was losing focus thinking about Vietnam and all this ‘speak truth to power’ stuff).

So, there we were around the Stead Thanksgiving table: my family and our Canadian cousins. Walt was at one end of the table and my Mother, Tessie, was at the other. My sisters and a brother-in-law sat with me on one side, and Hughie’s wife and his daughters were all on the other side facing us. I was at the middle of the table and Hughie sat directly across from me. The eating of the meal had gone well and was pleasant enough, but I detected that Hughie was preoccupied with something. Then just as the coffee and apple pie were set out, he spoke.  Looking directly at me he said, “I hear you don’t hunt no more.”

The room fell quiet. The gentle sound of silverware clinking and spoons being stirred in coffee cups disappeared and a heavy expectation fell over the whole scene.

I said, “Yup, I quit.”
“Quit? What on earth for?”
I said, “Because there are too many people walking around in the woods shooting at each other.”
He smiled and said, “Oh hell, that don’t make no difference.”
I said, “Yes, it does.”
He lost his smile and said, “Why?”

And there it was, that personal moment of truth to power. I knew Walt was watching me now. It seemed like everyone was waiting for my answer. I said, “Because that is my decision. We don’t need the meat and I don’t need to be shot at.”

He looked down at his plate of Tessie’s apple pie. I waited for somebody else to say something, but the room was so silent now it felt like a loud silence. Without looking up he said, “Then I sure hope you don’t go to Vietnam.”

And before I could think of what to say I said, “I’m not going. It’s wrong and I’m not going.”

That was not one of our friendly Thanksgiving meals. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that. We eased back into a ‘let’s not talk about things’ mood.

Later, after everybody left and my sisters were talking with Tessie in the kitchen, I sat in the living room with Walt, watching an old black and white movie on the television. It was a war movie and, after a while, he said to turn it off. I got up and went over to the television set and switched to a different channel that had a Thanksgiving special with the singer Perry Como. But Walt said to turn the whole set off. I did, and returned to the upholstered chair where I picked up a weather-beaten paper-back book of poetry by e. e. cummings. Walt picked up his monthly issue of New York State Conservationist magazine. We read in silence: him smoking his pipe and me chewing a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. The voices of the women in the back kitchen teased and reminisced. The bad time of my talking with cousin-in-law Hughie was slipping away.

That was when Walt looked up from his magazine and said, “You know, Hughie don’t like you much.”

I said I knew that.

He then said, “But he respects you for speaking your truth.”

That was when I learned that few people like you for speaking truth to power, but they just might respect you.

Ed’s Corner

Thanksgiving is a time for counting our blessings, feeling gratitude for what we have, for acknowledging the gifts of our life. Perhaps this year it might feel more challenging, for many reasons – political and otherwise – to feel blessed, to feel happy.

And yet, you may be happy at times and not even know it! Kurt Vonnegut (yes, the very same author of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-five, and more) from his essay “Knowing What’s Nice”, has this to say:

“And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex…His principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

So, I do the same now and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘Well, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is! ‘ ”

I’ve taken to doing this myself, and it’s been great for me and others with me.

If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is:

* on a windy day watching the fallen leaves twist and twirl and go racing down the street or over the lawn, almost inviting me to join them.

* my first time this season catching a scent of smoke from someone’s fire place or wood stove.

* sharing hot chocolate or hot apple cider inside after being outdoors.

* seeing the first snowflakes of the season.

* hearing how everybody’s day was during a dinner with all family members present.

* venturing outdoors after a snowfall and being the first to make footprints in the blank, snowy canvas.

* watching a magnificent sunset (these November evenings are especially notable).

* getting up in the middle of a cold night and then quickly climbing back into bed and under the still-warm blankets.

* holding my new grandchild, leaning down, and taking in that indescribable baby scent; if heaven had an odor, it would be that.

* watching my dog run and play and get dog-tired.

* walking home in the early evening, in the cold, and seeing the lights of my home from a distance, knowing my loved ones are there, inside, where it is warm.

You can probably add many more of your own ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’ categories to this list. You could even start a small journal (or keep a list on your phone, if you must) of moments like these. It will certainly help you feel thankful.

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Thanksgiving Cup-a-Joe

There were many Thanksgiving traditions in my home village of Hillburn; along with the preparation for a holiday dinner there was the beginning of deer hunting season, usually around the last week of November. Shotguns were brought out from closets and gun cabinets, buck knives sharpened, and a fresh pair of woolen socks was purchased. We kids were encouraged to gather acorns weeks earlier as well as hickory nuts and walnuts, both of which were encased in an outer husk and something of a mess to open. Actually, most folks preferred the store bought walnuts as they were easier to open and less messy than our local wild ones. We were also encouraged to collect the most beautiful red and rust colored leaves of maple and oak as well as golden yellow birch leaves, for decorations that would curl and darken in our homes. Baking started some days before Thanksgiving which filled the house with the thick sweet aroma of apple and berry pies. It occurred to me that morning coffee smelled best in November, perhaps it was the association with hunting season or pumpkin pie or perhaps it had to do with the chill in the air. It was a few days before Thanksgiving that Ricky Cramshaw and I first tasted coffee.

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We had debated this for weeks. It seemed to us that this thick warm wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the morning was an invitation to a sumptuous taste hoarded by adults. We asked my dad, Walt, why kids didn’t drink coffee. He thought about this and told us that as a boy he often drank coffee and supposed that it fell out of favor for kids as soda pop took over. So we asked him to brew us a pot. Walt put up some coffee in his G.E. electric percolator. We huddled together and studied the little glass top of the pot eagerly waiting for the first spit of caramel colored caffeine to strike forth, when it finally did we cheered. When it was ready he poured out two cups of the black elixir and set them before us on the round Formica kitchen table. He put a pint of cream and a sugar bowl before us and two spoons. He said, “There you go boys, there’s your cup of Joe.”

Ricky said, “I thought it was coffee?”

“Well sure that’s what it is.”

“Then why’d you call it Joe?”

Walt sighed and said, “Well, you see during World War Two our soldiers were called G. I. Joe and over in France they got to drink some very fine, very strong coffee.”

I asked, “Was it good coffee they drank?”

“Oh sure it was. It was fine Arabian and Turkish coffee, some of the best in the world. But they missed their American coffee, which doesn’t grow here anyway, its just brewed American style. So when they got a cup of American coffee they called it ‘Joe’, you know cause it was their brew for G. I. Joes.”

I leaned over and inhaled the deep scent rising from my cup of Joe. I said to him, “So this year I can have a cup of coffee with my apple pie on Thanksgiving?”

He said, “Lets say you taste a little of that first.”

I took hold of the cream bottle and poured some into the black coffee and watched tan clouds bellow out in the drink until it was all a tan brown color. Ricky shook his head, skipped the cream and spooned two teaspoon of sugar into his cup of Joe. Then he looked at Walt and said, “Maybe a little more?” Walt nodded. Ricky then shoveled three more spoonfuls into his cup. Now we were ready. I leaned over and raised the cup to my lips and sipped just as Ricky took hold of his and drank. I don’t know which one of us choked first but whatever we drank blew back across the table and sent Walt into tears of laughter. I can only describe it as the taste of a horrible mistake in side of my mouth. Ricky later said it was like drinking a poison Oreo Cookie. Needless to say coffee was not on either of our menus that Thanksgiving.