Saturday, November 25, 2017

November 2017 - The Real Skinny on Thanksgiving

The Obsessive Gardener, taken by Ron Daniels
Early November is a particularly exciting time for me.  It has nothing to do with the impending holiday hysteria that passes for good times in Hallmark commercials.  For me, it's when Agway starts drastically marking down their plants to clear them out for the season.  I've built whole gardens from their 1/2 price tables, but in time I learned that if one is really patient, a good eye can identify what's left in the pots on the dollar table and make out like a bandit.  The staff has become so accustomed to my frequent visits, I decided to tell them about my project this year to weed and cover the front bank on the main Route 6 with their flowers.  Now, they've gotten into the spirit and go looking for more plants that could be marked down to $1 for me.  With the first hard freeze predicted, I decided to make one last visit for mulch to tuck all the new babies in, and whatever last offerings the $1 table might have.  I went home loaded with 17 pots of Day Lillies, Russian Sage, Coreopsis, Hibiscus and the mulch of course.  And, just in time to see the first load of Christmas trees being unloaded as I drove off.  The cut trees will come and go, but just wait 'til next Spring!    
Fall flowers are the best, popping out just to spite the coming frost

The Cape Cod Times reported more beach news this month, as yet another shipwreck was revealed on the quickly eroding Nauset Beach.  It's thought, according to a Vice President of American Underwater, ironically named John Perry Fish, that the remains belong to a three-masted schooner out of Nova Scotia named the Montclair, which was known to run aground on Nauset in 1927.  Just the latest surprise for beachcombers.

Nauset Beach in Orleans
It wouldn't be November on Cape Cod without Eastham's annual Turnip Festival.  Because of our sandy soil, Eastham's turnips are larger and sweeter than most and are considered a delicacy.  Well, if you like turnips, of course.   Sixteen local food establishments entered dishes in the annual cook-off.  Some examples of past winning recipes are Turnip Puff Casserole, Turnip Soup, and even Turnip Ice Cream.  This year's winner was Big Dog's BBQ in Orleans for their Turnip Pulled Pork au Gratin with Turnip Cream. Second Prize went to C Shore for Turnip Poppers, and third prize was snagged by Corner Store for Harvest Turnip Slaw.  I would definitely try all of them. 

By now, you have all had your version of Thanksgiving, given thanks for your perceived blessings, surrounded yourself in the warmth of family and friends, possibly endured grueling political discussions around the table with people you rarely see, maybe volunteered serving a meal at a homeless shelter, or perhaps even pulled the shades, ignored tradition and enjoyed the absolute silence.  But, you've surely heard inklings before that there are actually many historical versions of "the first Thanksgiving", other than the abridged, softened version taught in American textbooks to make the account more palatable for children.  Living, as I do, in the very path of this history, I wanted to get a feel for what my neighborhood was really like almost 400 years ago when European ancestors met New England natives.  The following accounts are cherry picked from two very informative online articles from The New York Times [Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong] and [First Thanksgiving Meal].  There are numerous other sites, but these gave quite enough for a first course:

It IS true that the Mayflower did bring Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth England in 1620, and that they set up a colony at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.  But, did you know that Plymouth was already a village with clear fields and a spring when the Pilgrims declared it a lovely place to settle, wondering about their good fortune?  The reality, as they soon discovered, was that the natives who had established it had all been wiped out by the plague.  

American textbooks teach that the Pilgrims were a brave band of people who faced the uncertainty of a long, dangerous voyage to a new land to seek religious freedom.  The fact is that they already had religious freedom in Holland, where they first settled in the early 17th century.  Like the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, they were actually 'separatists', braving the journey to North America for the opportunity to make money and to establish a religious theocracy, a system of government in which religious heads rule in the name of God.   

A year later, in 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by about 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe, and it's from this accounting that we have Thanksgiving as we know it.  It wasn't until the 1830's that this event was claimed as the first Thanksgiving by New Englanders, and the holiday was made official by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as a thank you for Civil War victories.  All that aside, it still isn't exactly right to claim it as the "first Thanksgiving" as both Native Americans and Europeans had been holding festivals to celebrate successful harvests for centuries.

Now, the accounts of how this harvest celebration became a joint one are not entirely known since the English-written version does not mention an invitation, nor does Wampanoag oral tradition.  However, it was noted that the natives had been planting on the other side of the brook from the colony, and it is speculated that after their harvest was gathered, there was a diplomatic call made by the Wampanoag leader.  An ensuing cross-cultural gathering with food, games and prayer was recorded.  Tisquantum, also know as Squanto, played a large role in aiding the settlers, becoming a translator for them to trade with other natives, and showing them the most effective methods for planting corn and the best locations to fish.  But, this is where the American textbook version ends.

The pre-quel leading to this event was that Squanto was captured by English explorers in 1614, spent several years in England, which is how he learned English, and was later sold into slavery in Spain.  When he was able to return to New England in 1619, he found his entire tribe dead from smallpox.  He then met the Pilgrims in March of 1621 and served as a gracious liaison.  

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” from 1914, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe.

Our current day eat-a-thon bears less and less resemblance to actual historical data, but let's not dwell on the unfortunate direction that history takes between the Wampanoag hosts and their uninvited guests.  Instead, let's get to the food, as that seems to be the one thing we had in common.  Food is survival, and feasts are joyous celebrations!  Turkey, or no turkey, there was no shortage of meat, as the Wampanoags are reported to have arrived with an offering of five deer, which was roasted on a spit over a fire.  It was also speculated that the colonists might have used some of the venison to make a hearty stew.  Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow journaled that the colony's Governor, William Bradford, dispatched four men on a "fowling" mission for the event.  Although wild turkey was plentiful in the region, it's just as likely that they returned with the ducks, geese and swans that they were known to eat.  Herbs, onions and nuts were used inside for flavor instead of a bread stuffing. Historians also believe that because mussels, lobster, bass, clams and oysters were so abundant, it's very likely that seafood was included on the menu.  From the harvests were corn, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and peas.  But, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which would have been made into a porridge sweetened with molasses.  Oddly enough, potatoes which were introduced from Spain to Europeans around 1570, had not caught on, so there were no steaming bowls of mashed potatoes in which to make gravy lakes.  But, remember the tasty Eastham turnip?  It was no doubt included in the feast, mashed, or otherwise, but probably not turnip ice cream.  Also gracing the table would be locally picked blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and YES, cranberries, which the natives not only ate, but used as dye.  [Try getting cranberry sauce out of your white sweater...]  The supply of sugar that came with the settlers on the Mayflower had long been depleted, and the newbies didn't start boiling cranberries for sauce until a good 50 years later.   We could almost call their dessert pumpkin pie, but not only did the colony lack the butter and wheat flour needed to make a crust, they hadn't constructed any ovens, yet.  According to some accounts, they improvised by hollowing out pumpkins and filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make custard by roasting them over hot ashes.  I'm sated just thinking about this magnificent buffet and only wish we had continued to be better neighbors. 

There's never any shortage of potatoes on the Lower Cape these days, as Mike O'Connor of the Bird Watchers' Store in Orleans put out the word on his Facebook page: 

The most exciting day of the year is almost here. 
This Saturday, Nov. 18th, is our annual Free Hatful of Potatoes Day. 
We've just finished unloading over two tons of fresh spuds, so get your hat ready. 
And if you don’t have a hat…you’d better start knitting. 

As for Ron and myself, it was a peaceful, self-indulgent day without visitors, to spend as we wished.  It's usually pretty quiet on Cape Cod in the off-season, but after all the holiday guests have arrived over the bridge and are settled around their choice of football games, beach walks, or gathered in family kitchens, it gets so quiet outside that one can hear the birds pecking in distant tree trunks and thoughts can easily wander back to what it was like here in the 1600's.  A Cornish game hen served the purpose for our holiday feast of choice, accompanied with cranberry sauce I made from a gift of berries from a local bog owner, and sweetened with maple syrup.  What would the "Pilgrims" have thought of that, I wonder?   And, what would they would make of the news that Santa Claus would be arriving at the Chatham fish pier next Sunday via the Coast Guard, followed by a trip to the community center by fire engine just a week after the harvest celebration.  A lot has changed here in my neighborhood since 1620.  Easthamsters just roll with the punches.   
Fort Hill Fall

No comments:

Post a Comment