Thanksgiving is tough on local foodies. There’s not much to harvest in the home garden right now, and even experienced farmers resort to hoop houses and row covers to protect crops from the cold.
Plus, the Norman Rockwell take on Thanksgiving dinner, though seductively yummy, bears almost no resemblance to the simple and unavoidably local fare served at the Plymouth colony in 1621.
Can we do anything to make modern Thanksgiving both more local and closer to the original?
Katherine Wall, culinarian at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., and other authorities are confident that wildfowl (particularly pigeons and waterfowl), venison and corn were featured in the first Thanksgiving.
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Beyond that, everything is up for debate.
Few European “standard” vegetables – beets, cabbage, carrots, onions – were available, but Native American veggies probably were.
Besides corn, beans and winter squash (pumpkins) are likely candidates. As ecological gardeners know, the corn-beans-squash trio, known traditionally as “The Three Sisters,” were planted together in Native American fields.
To the English settlers, “beans” meant what we today call fava beans, not modern green beans. Green beans and their dried versions – pintos, red, black and so on – are on that long list of foods to be thankful for that the New World contributed to the Old, along with chocolate, potatoes and tomatoes.
Sweet potatoes are, too, so candied yams may make the cut. There’s a caveat: sweet potatoes are a tropical plant and a major challenge to grow in New England.
Here in the Carolinas, though, they are fair game, and good local sweet potatoes are available now in local farmers’ markets.
Native American wild-gathered foods round out the probable edibles list. The First Nations peoples took advantage of the bounty of nature, harvesting nuts, berries and fruits.
Chestnuts enjoyed an honored place, and other native standouts included pecans, blueberries, cranberries (in New England) and persimmons.
It may seem like cheating to swap elegant Asian “kaki” persimmons for the smaller, seedier American native, but both work in holiday recipes.
Asian persimmons, now available at the farmers’ market and in grocery stores, are easier to obtain, and they make beautiful, rich puddings and breads.
Just be sure persimmons are completely ripe, or you may stay puckered up until Christmas.
There is now a nonpuckery persimmon you can eat like an apple, sold as “Sharon fruit,” but they are sub-mediocre for baking.
We haven’t even mentioned turkey. Authorities say that if turkey was at the first Thanksgiving at all, it was a skinny, stringy, gamey bird, nothing like a modern Butterball. If you wanted fat in 1621 America, you were better off eating a bear.
That all adds up to two Thanksgiving suggestions:
• Rather than try to create a strict duplication of the first Thanksgiving, embrace diversity. Make something authentic, but leave room for more modern dishes, too.
• And, yes, serve something fresh and local. Along with sweet potatoes and winter squash, kale, cabbage, collards, spinach and – my favorite – kohlrabi are all available now, even sweeter after the recent cold snap.
Kohlrabi is a little unusual but worth hunting for, with a big round stem the size of a softball. This bulb is crunchy and sweet, perfect raw for dips, and the leaves, lightly steamed, may be the best-tasting green of them all.
Local, field-grown lettuce is also a good choice. Nothing like a simple salad; unlike the early English settlers, you do not need to boil it first, either.
My suggestion for an authentic dish for Thanksgiving is Cherokee bean bread, “duyu gadu” in Tsalagi, the Cherokee people’s language.
This Cherokee staple combines two of the Three Sisters: corn and beans.