The Daughters of the American Revolution asked me to present a talk on American foods at their meeting last Saturday. The ladies of the chapter could not have been nicer, inviting not only myself, but Hawkins Teague and his girlfriend, Sanci Canon, to their luncheon. We ate a traditional Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, dressing, cranberries, yams, turnip greens and for dessert, both pumpkin and apple pie. Hawkins and I couldn’t even think of eating another bite for the rest of the day.
When I thought about everything on my plate, I realized just how American everything truly was. The turkey- a bird indigenous to North America, and now a Thanksgiving and delicatessen staple was unknown to Europe before the colonization of the Western Hemisphere. I told the audience how turkey was considered to be a food for the wealthy, especially in England, reminding them how Scrooge, after his reform, replaced the Cratchett family’s goose with a turkey to celebrate the Christmas season. Before the turkey, Europeans feasted on goose or even peacock.
Lest we forget Benjamin Franklin, in his opposition to the naming of the American Bald Eagle to be our national symbol advocated the virtues of the humble turkey. “He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
And what is turkey without the sweet tanginess of the cranberry? Meats and sweet fruits seem to go hand-in-hand, but the domestication of the cranberry is said to have stemmed from a Revolutionary War Hero named Henry Hall. According to lore, and of course, Wikipedia, Hall cultivated the first cranberry bog in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816.
Moving across our plate, we come to what I would not hesitate to call the highlight to both Hawkins and myself, the cornbread dressing. Maize or corn was unknown in the Old World before explorers came to this hemisphere, making it another unique American dish.
Native Americans cultivated corn with two other crops, beans and squash as sort of a symbiosis. The beans used the corn stalks for support, much as modern gardeners use bean poles. In return, the beans fixed nitrogen into the soil. The third crop, squash, protected the fields from weeds and from foraging animals. Early Europeans eschewed corn for wheat and rye breads, which grew poorly in the colonies. Their first efforts with corn failed to account for this triumvirate of crops.
The First Citizens taught early Europeans about proper cultivation, and gave them a recipe I intend to try soon- succotash. Succotash is a staple in both Pennsylvania and Indiana on the Thanksgiving table, featuring a medley of corn and lima beans. The “Hoosier variation” replaces the lima beans with green beans. Our host, Ed Whitty, his wife Sue of the DAR, and himself a master of biscuits, said that he grew up with succotash and had not eaten it in a long while. Maybe he would enjoy a recipe if I can find a good one.
Hawkins said last week, “It’s hard to think of Italy without the tomato,” but at one point, sauces must have been made with other ingredients. Before the colonization of the Americas, tomatoes were unknown in the Old World. No more native to the nation than Marco Polo’s introduction of pasta, tomatoes originated in Mexico. The plants, of the nightshade family, bear poisonous leaves and stems. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the fruits of the plant while in Paris, sending seeds home to cultivate at Monticello.
The sweet potatoes on our plates were another Western Hemisphere original. During prehistory, they migrated to Polynesia, leaving scholars at a loss to explain who carried them in the migration. Colonists sweetened their spuds with brown sugar and molasses grown in British colonies such as Barbados in the Caribbean.
Even our pumpkin pie at the end of the meal has roots in the New World. Natives cultivated summer squashes like yellow squash and zucchini to cook lightly and eat, while winter squashes like the pumpkin and butternut could be dried to last through the cold months.
Something we eat every day, the potato was again unknown to Europe, though called the Irish Potato, the simple spud is more rightly called “The American Potato” probably originating in the South American nation of Peru. Jefferson, again at the forefront of early American Culinary Arts, loved French Cuisine. Often in his home, he treated guests to a course of “Pomme de terre frites,” translated to “deep fried potatoes,” or what we know as “French fries.” Tolkien said, “Boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew.”
After our banquet, and my lecture, the DAR left me with a few unexpected gifts. I would like to thank them for the beautiful spice rack, now immediately beside my stove, a tin of genuine Hungarian paprika for future goulashes, and a gift certificate. Each one means the world to me, and I cannot thank you all enough.
I also need to give a word of thanks to my good friend Bob Batz out of Pittsburgh who sent me another beautiful cookbook. This thick tome covers a world of recipes from every continent. Though I did not plagiarize the recipe, I will say that next week’s recipe for a sort of Vietnamese barbecued pork is just the sort of thing this book would cover. Thanks for remembering your old friend, Bob.
Again, I give my thanks to all who have touched my life- to the DAR for inviting me to speak and for the gifts. Ed and Sue Whitty were fine hosts with a beautiful home. “Miss Virginia” Alexander and Maurine Bowles were gracious as could be in both word and deed. Hopefully, I did not make much of a fool of myself, and a good time was had by all. Certainly the American feast satisfied the appetites of Sanci, Hawkins and I. Good eating.