19 November 2022
This weather is not doing things by half, I’ll give it that. We went from the longest growing season on record — 181 days, theoretically long enough to grow even protracted growing season veg like okra — with the official first frost date ringing in at 28 October, to… well, there’s a single digit forecast for this weekend. Both tonight and tomorrow will certainly flirt with temperatures very near 0°F.
This is not completely unheard of for Thanksgiving week. In fact, in the not too distant past, it was unusual to be unable to drive your sled on the frozen river to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner… hence the song… Native plants are generally ready for this sort of thing as we push toward the solstice, and I’ve tried to prepare my garden of foreigners as best as I can. I’ve got row cover and thick mulch on anything that might be killed at those temperatures. However, with the recent warmth, there are still green leaves on the roses and apple trees, and there isn’t the insulating blanket of snow that is usual when deep winter temperatures hit. So there is reason to be nervous.
But there are always reasons to be nervous about the garden. You have to choose your worries if you’re going to be a gardener with even half a shot at a functioning liver in old age. I think I’m going to ignore this one. Because I have planned and really done the best I can do. This is where we have to hope that other beings are in the game as well, planning and adapting to the changing environment. And to all appearances this is true.
For example… I’m growing healthy lavender in Vermont… I still don’t actually know how. Lavender is hardy down to -20°F (-30°C). It’s been colder than that many times since I put lavender in this garden (thinking it would mostly be an annual). There was a string of days in late January where the highs didn’t climb above that temperature. It also didn’t get too much colder than that because it was very cloudy and therefore insulated overnight. Still, the lavender should have been extremely put out, if not dead… but it’s doing pretty good here, sending up dozens of flowering stems this summer and spreading rooted stems out into the perennial beds. I just put the plants in the ground last year; they’ve not had that much time to settle in and figure out the weather. Yet they seemingly have. Somehow.
I count that as hope. If lavender can cope with Vermont climate disruption, then perhaps we’re not the only species working on adapting to change. (Though we are the only species causing that change… ahem…)
The bigger concern in my world is not the Thanksgiving weather — though that does make the news with increased urgency because of travel — but the Thanksgiving meal.
This year, we are gathering for a potluck holiday. I don’t have to cook a bird. I didn’t have to buy a bird when the co-op put them up for order. I’m not sure there will be a bird. So this is a banner year for me. Finally, a Thanksgiving dinner that I can eat… and one that doesn’t involve “bird of despair”. Though I have mitigated that as much as possible by spending quite a lot of money on local farmers who don’t raise despair poultry. The turkeys still die at the end of a year or two, but they have a really good life until then. And let’s face it, even in the wild they don’t have much of a shot at dying of old age. (If you’ve ever seen a bobcat, the wild turkey’s primary predator, take down a turkey… well, I’m betting that’s not how the turkey would choose to go.)
I am bringing apple pie and cranberry sauce. There will also be less traditional but probably just as relevant recipes. Relevant in that these are the foods that people from the many cultures in this country prepare when they gather together for the winter holidays. These are family recipes, not the imagined foods of colonists. There may be some of those green bean casserole things; but there will also be spanakopita and stuffed grape leaves, tamales and posole, a variety of breads and sweets and probably a good deal of rice.
I’m bringing apple pie because I like apple pie and can make a pretty good crust. Moreover, I don’t get to make pie very often because I can’t eat a whole pie. Well, nobody can eat a whole pie without repercussions… But I can’t even eat a whole slice of most pies. So I like to stretch out my crusty skill-set whenever I have a group of people who will eat the results of my baking fun.
Cranberry sauce is another thing entirely. I make that in large quantity when there are fresh berries for sale. Up here in bog-berry central, I can get gallons of them for cheap — but only for a very limited time of the year. They don’t keep unless you dry them, usually by adding sugar as a preservative. I think they’re good in baked goods (for example, there’s this recipe that I have yet to try), but they’re a bit too sour for most palates. And again, I can’t eat a lot of baked goods anyway. So I make cranberry sauce and freeze it. And everybody loves it. So… there were requests…
It comes out for all the winter holiday meals, all the way to Candlemas, but I also use it on oatmeal and as a sandwich spread. It makes an excellent jelly that is both good in the mouth and good for the body since cranberries have all sorts of benefits — from cleaning out the kidneys and lower digestive tract to helping to regulate blood sugar. (Combined with yogurt, they also make for a sure-fire remedy against fungal infections, including the dreaded female yeast thing…)
I’ll be sharing a recipe or two on Monday. Today, I’d like to talk books.
From the Book Cellar : Thanksgiving Edition
My favorite book for this time of year is now over 30 years old. The former food editor for Parents Magazine, Holly Garrison, put together one of the most useful and informative cookbooks I’ve ever encountered — The Thanksgiving Cookbook (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991). This book is a compendium of practical recipes and tips for all the special meals in the winter months. Garrison writes in clear prose that frankly eschews fashion and expense. These are good foods that can be found and cooked by everyone, simple but elegantly so and full of flavors both conventional and unexpected. There are things to learn on every page no matter how expert one may be in the kitchen. There are also lessons on culture and history, explaining why these are the foods we turn to at Thanksgiving. (Hint: it usually has nothing to do with Pilgrims.) No matter if you cook every day or only on special occasions or not at all if you can help it, this book is a great read. And for those who use it, these recipes work. Exactly as printed! That is so very rare! If you can find a copy, buy it. You’ll pull it off the shelf again and again and again.
I’ve spent much of the time I’ve lived in New England trying to wrap my head around these peoples who theoretically held the first Thanksgiving celebration. I’d say most historians of early colonial America face this story with a certain degree of embarrassment. On the one hand, it’s a great story, one of the few that portrays both the humanity in Puritans and the gentle grace of Native American cultures. Here we have these struggling newcomers who wanted to show gratitude to their god and to the people who were helping them adapt. In the story, these Pilgrims turned not to prayer and ceremony, but to the pagan idea of the Harvest Home celebration, and then they invited the local tribes to share in the communal meal. Of course, even in the official story, the local tribes had to supply most of the food for the feast (notably not green bean casserole… or turkey…), but it’s the thought that counts, right…
Well, it would be if there had been a thought… However, nothing about the rest of colonial history fits with this Thanksgiving narrative. There is one letter that talks of a gathering, written by Edward Winslow to an English friend, though he does not call it a “thanks-giving”. Certainly journals of the day were rife with gratitude toward their god for providing them a new Eden, ripe for taking, but notes on gathering together for a celebratory feast with the former stewards of that ripe land are lacking. And Winslow’s account seems rather tangential and obscure. Far clearer are the gleeful accounts of stealing seed corn and sneering at the “naked natives” whose homelands they were busily commandeering. So historians don’t want to say it out loud, because there is so little to celebrate after all, but the official story seems unlikely. Sadly, it may largely be the invention of the formidable editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale.
Though it is still a good story! And a great narrative setting for a communal tradition. (Green bean casserole and all…) But for a better picture of who these people were and what might have happened, I’ve turned to other books.
First, one of the most entertaining and complex tales comes from Thomas Morton. His own journals of his experiment in creating utopia — collected together as New English Canaan (Dempsey, editor and publisher, 2000) — are great reading, and there have been numerous authors since — from Hawthorne to Roth — who have taken up the story of Morton’s Merrymount. (I mean, the guy erected a maypole… not twenty miles from the over-starched collars of Plymouth Colony. Talk about chutzpah!) Morton was one of a very small minority who approached Native American cultures with anything like an assumption of equality and an attitude of open acceptance. He seems to have possessed a true willingness to meet them on their own terms. And so his writings are a rare account of Native life as it actually was in this cataclysmic time, with what seems an attempt to portray them in their own voices, using their own words. He even includes a rudimentary dictionary while noting that “the Natives of this Country do use many words both of Greek and Latin, to the same signification that the Latins and Greeks have done”. (Though that might be said to support his rather wild theory that the peoples of this land descended from the Trojans in diaspora…) His writings are hard to come by, because he’s been uniformly reviled by American culture gate-keepers ever since he was banished for hedonism, but your local library may have a copy. (Because librarians do love an iconoclast…)
But Morton wasn’t around for Thanksgiving. He comes into the story of the colonies well after the threat of hunger was past. (His magnificent waistline would not have tolerated starvation…) For a look at those who might have been facing down that second winter in a bewildering new land, James and Patricia Scott Deetz have pulled together archeology and a vast arsenal of legal records from the earliest days to paint a very different portrait of the Pilgrim than the starched and repressed black hats with big buckles glaring out at us from all manner of Americana kitsch. The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (Anchor Books, 2000) tells of people who drank copiously; lied, stole, and murdered; had extramarital and premarital affairs; believed fervently in the spiritual world; were devoted to the ideas of family and home; and had hopes and dreams that often went unfulfilled. So, people pretty much like us.
The Deetzes begin their account of Plymouth with a point by point analysis of Winslow’s letter and conclude that it has little bearing on what we call Thanksgiving. Though there was some celebration held with dozens of people, Natives and settlers, it likely happened in September and sounds very similar to the Bog Yankee revelries that happened across the street from my Massachusetts house. Guns were fired. Deer and duck were charred over an open flame. Manly contests were held. Very likely there was watery beer. And it carried on for three days… No staid supper for the Englishmen and a few select Indians (while all the women waited obsequiously in the wings). The Natives outnumbered the colonists by almost three to one; and if there were tables, Winslow doesn’t mention it. Common sense might say that picnic blankets were probably the order of the day in a crowd that large and in a land that was generally lacking in typical European household goods.
So they may have had a feast. There were at least gifts of venison and poultry (though probably more of the waterfowl variety than forest birds like turkey). They may well have cooked all this meat up. But Winslow’s letter describes a gathering of over 140 people that lasted for a really long weekend at least. There was probably more on the menu than grilled meat. And in any case, the Plymouth colonists were like any other European peasants — they loved their celebrations. They probably followed the whole annual round of festivals and feast days — until the grumpy anti-Catholic preachers put the kibbosh on Christmas anyway (and anything else with even faint whiffs of female power or deity…). But that was decades in the future of the “first Thanksgiving”. So what did the original colonists eat when they did sit down to a communal meal?
Interestingly enough, peoples on both sides of the Atlantic tended to eat the same sort of thing. This was a stew of grains and pulses usually cooked with some fat or protein. The Natives used corn and beans boiled with venison or other game, and at least one language family called it succotash. The English stewed barley, oats, peas and sometimes wheat with milk or soup bones and called it pottage. Even a fancy meal often came out of a pot. The degree of fanciness was in the amount of meat and fat that floated in the gruel. Wealthy people could depend upon actually encountering a few mouthfuls of meat; the less fortunate had to settle for vague flavoring.
So a communal meal in that autumn of just over 400 years ago would definitely have included pottage. The grain was probably more corn than wheat because the colonists hadn’t yet figured out wheat in this climate and the Natives grew corn. There were certainly beans, maybe even a large white bean like the Lima bean that we find in modern succotash recipes, but probably not green beans. I suspect there was squash because it grows so easily and abundantly here that even the colonists (who were largely not farmers, mind you) could have mastered a good harvest in their first season. And to this pot was added “numerous fowls” and apparently five deer, given as a gift from the Indian chief to the governor. So if you want to go for authenticity in your Thanksgiving feast, you can probably ditch the fancy cutlery and hors d’oeuvres, definitely forget the turkey and cranberry sauce (which the colonists seemed to think were a version of the alkermes bugs that colored and flavored exotic dishes in the Orient). Cook up a Pot of Something and serve it with a liberal wash of grain alcohol and there you have it.
But of course that isn’t Thanksgiving. Our holiday does not have an authentic pedigree. Or at least not a Puritanical pedigree. Our holiday is a communal feast for family and friends, serving up the foods that our parents and grandparents served — though not much beyond that because this holiday as we know it is also not that old. It coalesced into this form in the early part of the last century. So though the “first Thanksgiving” may or may not have taken place over 400 years ago and a rather pushy lady scribbler of the Civil War era strong-armed Abraham Lincoln into creating a national holiday “for Thanksgiving”, Thanksgiving as we celebrate it has been with us for only about a century.
So to wrap up a rather rambling accounting for this holiday, eat what you feel represents your ties to your people and your traditions. In none of these stories is there any requirement to eat green bean casserole… most definitely not bird of despair! There are no conventions here… and it seems like authenticity is really not the goal (unless you’re a Bog Yankee). The goal is being grateful together whatever is on the table before us.
I have some other books that I would recommend as foundational Thanksgiving reading. For an exhilarating account of the Puritan saga that is probably pretty good history as well, there’s no better than Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower. (My copy is from Penguin Books, 2006; there are others including a middle grade reader). Myths are debunked. Details are painted in. And a good deal of starchy bilge is thrown overboard. I’ve read it many times now for sheer pleasure.
Pair that with David Lindsay’s not quite as rigorous but even more entertaining Mayflower Bastard (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), the account of one of Lindsay’s own ancestors, Richard More, who found himself on a boat to the edge of the world at five years old and managed to make a life out of that mistake. I don’t know what is history and what is fiction in this book, but like the story of the first Thanksgiving, it really doesn’t matter. The story is the story!
And then for a not so entertaining view of the Puritan world, written in their own words, Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson compiled a sourcebook of period writings in two volumes, called simply The Puritans. (I have only volume 2, published by Harper Torchbooks in 1963. This second volume deals mostly with the latter 17th century, though there are some great letters from Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony and another contrasting personality from the stereotypes of the times.) If you want to know what these people thought of themselves — or more precisely what they wanted us, the future, to think of them — this is the stuff to read.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022