Thanks for Giving

Paul Hetzler

Many historians feel the Pilgrims would have all perished during the winter of 1620 if not for food provided by the Wampanoags, on whose land they settled. The following spring, the Wampanoags gave the Pilgrims seeds to plant, as well as a tutorial (possibly an App; we can’t be sure) on the production, storage and preservation of indigenous food crops including corn, beans, and squash.

That fall—no one is sure if it was October or November—the Pilgrims gave thanks for Native agriculture, and feasted upon its bounty for three days straight. The Wampanoags probably gave thanks that there weren’t more ships full of Pilgrims on the horizon just then...

If the Pilgrims had only known what a big deal Thanksgiving was going to become in America they would undoubtedly have taken some pictures, or at least invited the press. As it is, the exact menu has been lost to us, but Wampanoag oral history, as well as some recently-unearthed Pilgrim grocery receipts, indicate there was indeed—surprise—corn, beans and squash in addition to fowl and venison. Beyond that there may have been chestnuts, sun chokes (Jerusalem artichokes), cranberries and a variety of seafood.

Barley was the single European-sourced crop that the Pilgrims managed to raise in 1621. Unfortunately, they seemed unaware it could be eaten. Fortunately, that meant they had plenty of beer for Thanksgiving.

While corn, beans and squash, “The Three Sisters,” were (and are) grown by many native peoples in the Americas, other indigenous crops will grace our Thanksgiving tables this year. Maybe you’ll have appetizers out for company before dinner. Mixed nuts, anyone? Peanuts are a big-time Native American crop. Pecans and sunflower seeds, too. And everyone likes corn chips with dip, right? Those hot (and sweet) peppers and tomatoes in the salsa are Native American foods. Prefer dip made with avocado? Yep, another native food. And the same for popcorn.

Of course turkeys are indigenous to the New World, but so are a lot of the “fixings.” Pass the (New World) cranberry sauce, please. How about some mashed potatoes to go with that gravy? It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without potatoes. White (“Irish”) potatoes are a New World crop, as are sweet potatoes. We can thank Native American agronomists for green beans, and Lima beans too. Don’t forget the squash—Native peoples developed many varieties, including Hubbard squash and pumpkins, which are technically a winter squash.

Which brings us to dessert. Specifically to the iconic Thanksgiving pumpkin pie—I think just about everyone is thankful for that treat. But wait; there’s more. Let’s have ice cream with our pie (provided we don’t have serious cholesterol issues). Maple-walnut, perhaps? Those two indigenous flavors go well together. Vanilla is from the Americas, and so is chocolate. If you add some toppings like strawberry, pineapple or blueberry sauce, you’ll be having more Native American foods for dessert.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, filled with family and gratitude. Among other things, we can be grateful to Native peoples and their crops. But please, don’t blame them if you eat more than you had intended.

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