Thanksgiving Menu

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Firstly, I wanted to say I’ve never really liked Thanksgiving that much. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, gathering round a table to eat sides while everyone else rambled on about “turkey day” wasn’t my idea of a good time. Sometimes it felt like I was looking through a window at a world of people living an existence I couldn’t relate to at all- laughing and boasting as they stuffed themselves with as much of the dead bird as they could, while I couldn’t help but think sadly about the life that had been ended with so little dignity.

Later I became concerned with other elements of the holiday I found problematic. Much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving contains an element of celebrating Colonialism and wiping out Native cultures, rather than the peaceful image of blended cultures we have rewritten the holiday to be about. It is, in fact, likely that the first Thanksgiving took place as a celebration of European hunters returning safely- after slaughtering hundreds of Pequot Indians living in current day Connecticut.

In short, Thanksgiving and I have never really shared a moral compass- but there are elements of the holiday I can appreciate. Really, they are the elements I like about all holidays- family and food. Gathering with my family, and taking the time to appreciate each other is the most fundamental part of this holiday, and that could be celebrated without the historical reference to the Pequot slaughter. That is why I chose to make a menu this year using only ingredients native to the Americas- a menu that could have been eaten to celebrate family and give thanks if Europeans had never come to this continent.

For those of you interested in the history of agriculture, I’ve gone through the history of each ingredient used in my recipes and where it was cultivated, and how it was used. Because wheat is a crop from Europe, and sugarcane from Asia, all of my recipes are gluten-free, and refined sugar free.

Cranberry Lima Bean Salad

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Ingredients

  • Lima beans: Lima beans are named after the present day capital of Peru, and were likely domesticated nearby in the Andes and spread through the Americas. While the Inca enjoyed these large and buttery beans, their cultivation in the area started even further back- they were a favorite subject of the Moche for decorating pottery.
  • Cranberries/Cranberry juice: The cranberry has a special place in my heart, as the state fruit of my native Massachusetts. Seeing the fields of red berries, bobbing in a bog is a remarkable sight to behold- one which was put in place by glaciers carving out kettle ponds. Wompanoag members have been using cranberries as food and medicine for over 12,000 years, eating them fresh and dried into pemmican.
  • Maple syrup: Native Americans used the sugar maple sap not, as we do now, for maple syrup, but boiled it further until it crystalized in maple sugar so it would be easier to store throughout the year. The Algonquin say maple sugar collection started when a chief, running through the woods, threw his tomahawk which struck a tree. The clear sap trickled down the bark and into a birch bucket sitting below where his wife, thinking it was water, took the liquid and boiled their food in it. As the sap reduced, the resulting food was covered in the sweet, sticky syrup and so the collection of maple sugar began. Other tribes have different stories about how and why maple sugaring got stated- you can read some more of them here.
  • Sweet corn: Corn (maize) is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world. There is evidence that as far back as 10,000 years ago, people living in present day Mexico had begun farming maize. Over time, the crop traveled across the Northern and Southern American continents, to be grown on terraces across the Andes and in cold regions of present day Canada, and everywhere inbetween. Iroquois developed a sustainable tradition for growing corn with beans and squash, describing the crops as three sisters who support and sustain each other. Today, corn is one of the most widely distributed food crops and is responsible for an incredible 21% of all human nutrition globally.
  • Bell peppers: Bell peppers are a type of chili pepper- the only one not containing capsicum. Thousands of years ago, different varieties of chili peppers were being cultivated by different peoples, across different regions of the Americas- one really could say that variety was the spice of life in those times. There is even early fossil evidence of homegrown chilies from 6,000 years ago in Ecuador. By the time the Spanish conquistadors made it to the Americas, peppers had infused themselves into every part of Aztec and Maya life. Not only were they eaten in everything, but they were thought to cure depression, used as a fumigant, a test of witchcraft, and even as a punishment for misbehaving children.
  • Sunflower seed oil: Sunflowers are native to southern North America, where they were first harvested by hunter/gatherer groups living in present day Mexico. The seeds produced contained high levels of fat (why we can use their oil), and were a much appreciated addition to early peoples diets. Sunflowers were cultivated in the South by the Aztec, while further north the Cherokee (along with other tribes) also began farming the vibrant flowers. Although they would be later cultivated further in Russia before making a second trip across the ocean, sunflowers are as American a crop as… tomatoes.
  • Agave: Agave is another crop native to early Mesoamerica. Evidence at Guitarrero Cave shows its use in hunter/gatherer groups as early as 12,000 years ago, although when and where cultivation started is less clear. As time went on, people found more and more uses for agave- the fibers of the plant were used for textiles and construction material. The spines were used as tools and in ritual, and parts of the plants body could be eaten. The sweet sap was fermented into mildly alcoholic beverages, and distilled into mezcal- the forerunner to tequila.

 

Wild Rice, Chili and Cacao Nib Stuffed Acorn Squash

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Ingredients

  • Acorn squash: Acorn squash were originally domesticated in Mexico, but were spread across North America. Squash, along with corn and beans, was one of the three sister crops, a sustainable method of growing the three crops together that allowed the same soils to be farmed repeatedly. It is thought that squash were originally grown for their seeds, and it wasn’t until later that the flesh of the fruit was eaten.
  • Sunflower seed oil: Sunflowers are native to southern North America, where they were first harvested by hunter/gatherer groups living in present day Mexico. The seeds produced contained high levels of fat (why we can use their oil), and were a much appreciated addition to early peoples diets. Sunflowers were cultivated in the South by the Aztec, while further north the Cherokee (along with other tribes) also began farming the vibrant flowers. Although they would be later cultivated further in Russia before making a second trip across the ocean, sunflowers are as American a crop as… tomatoes.
  • Wild rice: Wild rice is native to both North America and Asia. It is not, as the name suggests, actually rice, but is a reed-like aquatic plant that grows around lakes and rivers. Wild rice was a staple in the diets of people living in present day Northern US and Southern Canada- the Ojibwa word for the black kernels was manoomin, which translates to “good berry”.
  • Black beans: black beans have been enjoyed in Mesoamerican countries for over 7,000 years. They were one of the three crops known as the three sisters to the Cherokee- squash were planted at the base of corn stalks, and beans were planted to grow up the corn stalks.
  • Chili powder: Thousands of years ago, different varieties of chili peppers were being cultivated by different peoples, across different regions of the America’s- one really could say that variety was the spice of life in those times. There is even early fossil evidence of homegrown chilies from 6,000 years ago in Ecuador. By the time the Spanish conquistadors made it to the Americas, peppers had infused themselves into every part of Aztec and Maya life. Not only were they eaten in everything, but they were thought to cure depression, used as a fumigant, a test of witchcraft, and even as a punishment for misbehaving children.
  • Cacao nibs: Cacao nibs are bits of fermented cacao beans- chocolate at their purest form, before any sugar or milk has been added. Chocolate has a long history in the Americas- evidence remains of chocolate being used as early as 1,000 BC by the Mayans. It was considered to be of divine origin, where the cultivation was said to have been started by demi-god Hunahpu. Cocoa was a high status item- it was typically prepared into an unsweeted, spicy, frothy beverage.
  • Cranberries: The cranberry has a special place in my heart, as the state fruit of my native Massachusetts. Seeing the fields of red berries, bobbing in a bog is a remarkable sight to behold- one which was put in place by glaciers carving out kettle ponds. Wompanoag members have been using cranberries as food and medicine for over 12,000 years, eating them fresh and dried into pemmican.
  • Onion: While the onions present in the supermarkets today were brought to the Americas from Europe, Native Americans did have a cultivated variety of onion and wild onions were widely used. The Monache Indians believed that the constellation Pleiades were six onion-loving women whose husbands banished them due to their pungent onion smell (their husbands did eventually regret this, but they, as can be seen in Taurus, have never been able to catch up with their wives).
  • Cashews: Cashews are a seed native to Brazil, but were exported and cultivated in India. I have been unable to find information as to whether or not cashews were consumed in the Americas before colonization (if anyone has any information here, please let me know!). It is, however, certain that without the Americas most of us would never have tried the creamy cashew seed.
  • Allspice: Allspice are the berries of the pimento tree, native to Jamaica. It is called allspice, because people say that it combines the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper. Mayans used allspice in religious rituals and in meat preservation. To this day, allspice is a feature of Caribbean cooking.

 

Cornbread with Roasted Tomato and Sunflower Seeds

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Ingredients:

  • Tomatoes: It’s interesting to think about Italian food without tomatoes, but until the 16th century there was not a drop of marinara in Europe. Tomatoes are thought to have been domesticated either by the Inca in the Andes, or the Aztec in Mexico (or perhaps by both). The hearty, pea-sized Solanum pimpinellifolium, the wild ancestor of our larger modern tomato, still grows wild in parts of Northern Peru today.
  • Sunflower Seed oil/Sunflower Seeds: Sunflowers are native to southern North America, where they were first harvested by hunter/gatherer groups living in present day Mexico. The seeds produced contained high levels of fat (why we can use their oil), and were a much appreciated addition to early peoples diets. Sunflowers were cultivated in the South by the Aztec, while further north the Cherokee (along with other tribes) also began farming the vibrant flowers. Although they would be later cultivated further in Russia before making a second trip across the ocean, sunflowers are as American a crop as… tomatoes.
  • Cornmeal: Corn (maize) is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world. There is evidence that as far back as 10,000 years ago, people living in present day Mexico had begun farming maize. Over time, the crop traveled across the Northern and Southern American continents, to be grown on terraces across the Andes and in cold regions of present day Canada, and everywhere inbetween. Iroquois developed a sustainable tradition for growing corn with beans and squash, describing the crops as three sisters who support and sustain each other. Today, corn is one of the most widely distributed food crops and is responsible for an incredible 21% of all human nutrition globally.
  • Quinoa flour: Unlike many crops from the Americas, whose English names are taken from Spanish, Greek or other European words, quinoa is actually in the Quechuan language- it translates to “mother grain”. There are still around 10 million people in the world today who speak the language, primarily in Peru and Ecuador, the same regions and language of the Inca. It was predecessors of the Inca who first domesticated quinoa in the high Andes and it has been grown and eaten there ever since.
  • Baking Powder: this ingredient is a little bit of a cheat- it is not a crop, so it was never “domesticated”, but it is needed to achieve the fluffy risen bread we all enjoy. However, it is interesting to note that the largest deposit of trona (the mineral which is the primary ingredient in baking soda) is found in Wyoming and is the source of 90% of the U.S. baking soda.
  • Agave Nectar: Agave is another crop native to early Mesoamerica. Evidence at Guitarrero Cave shows its use in hunter/gatherer groups as early as 12,000 years ago, although when and where cultivation started is less clear. As time went on, people found more and more uses for agave- the fibers of the plant were used for textiles and construction material. The spines were used as tools and in ritual, and parts of the plants body could be eaten. The sweet sap was fermented into mildly alcoholic beverages, and distilled into mezcal- the forerunner to tequila.
  • Cashew Milk: Cashews are a seed native to Brazil, but were exported and cultivated in India. I have been unable to find information as to whether or not cashews were consumed in the Americas before colonization (if anyone has any information here, please let me know!). It is, however, certain that without the Americas most of us would never have tried the creamy cashew seed.

 

Avocado Mashed Potatoes with Porcini Gravy

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Ingredients:

  • Potatoes: Potatoes are another vegetable that has been so embraced by Europeans, it’s hard to imagine them without it. But like many American crops, potatoes were first cultivated high in the Andes by the Inca. They were likely growing wild and consumed during the last 13,000 years. The Inca used potatoes in many ways, one of which was to create chuñu, a dehydrated potato mash that could last for up to 10 years.
  • Avocados: Around 10,000 years ago, Inca, Aztec and Olmec were eating wild avocados, and 5,000 years ago they began cultivating them. The word avocado is thought to have been derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word, meaning “testicle”, a reference to their shape.
  • Sunflower seed oil: Sunflowers are native to southern North America, where they were first harvested by hunter/gatherer groups living in present day Mexico. The seeds produced contained high levels of fat (why we can use their oil), and were a much appreciated addition to early peoples diets. Sunflowers were cultivated in the South by the Aztec, while further north the Cherokee (along with other tribes) also began farming the vibrant flowers. Although they would be later cultivated further in Russia before making a second trip across the ocean, sunflowers are as American a crop as… tomatoes.
  • Paprika/Chili Powder: Thousands of years ago, different varieties of chili peppers were being cultivated by different peoples, across different regions of the America’s- one really could say that variety was the spice of life in those times. There is even early fossil evidence of homegrown chilies from 6,000 years ago in Ecuador. By the time the Spanish conquistadors made it to the Americas, peppers had infused themselves into every part of Aztec and Maya life. Not only were they eaten in everything, but they were thought to cure depression, used as a fumigant, a test of witchcraft, and even as a punishment for misbehaving children.
  • Allspice: Allspice are the berries of the pimento tree, native to Jamaica. It is called allspice, because people say that it combines the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper. Mayans used allspice in religious rituals and in meat preservation. To this day, allspice is a feature of Caribbean cooking.
  • Porcini mushrooms: Porcini are a form of wild bolete mushroom, growing across North America as well as Europe. There is record of the Kashaya Pomo in California enjoying this wild mushroom, roasted and fried.
  • Onion: While the onions present in the supermarkets today were brought to the Americas from Europe, Native Americans did have a cultivated variety of onion and wild onions were widely used. The Monache Indians believed that the constellation Pleiades were six onion-loving women whose husbands banished them due to their pungent onion smell (their husbands did eventually regret this, but they, as can be seen in Taurus, have never been able to catch up with their wives).
  • Quinoa flour: Unlike many crops from the Americas, whose English names are taken from Spanish, Greek or other European words, quinoa is actually in the Quechuan language- it translates to “mother grain”. There are still around 10 million people in the world today who speak the language, primarily in Peru and Ecuador, the same regions and language of the Inca. It was predecessors of the Inca who first domesticated quinoa in the high Andes and it has been grown and eaten there ever since.
  • Cashew milk: Cashews are a seed native to Brazil, but were exported and cultivated in India. I have been unable to find information as to whether or not cashews were consumed in the Americas before colonization (if anyone has any information here, please let me know!). It is, however, certain that without the Americas most of us would never have tried the creamy cashew seed.

 

Pineapple, Pumpkin and Pecan Upside-Down Cake

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Ingredients:

  • Agave nectar: Agave is another crop native to early Mesoamerica. Evidence at Guitarrero Cave shows its use in hunter/gatherer groups as early as 12,000 years ago, although when and where cultivation started is less clear. As time went on, people found more and more uses for agave- the fibers of the plant were used for textiles and construction material. The spines were used as tools and in ritual, and parts of the plants body could be eaten. The sweet sap was fermented into mildly alcoholic beverages, and distilled into mezcal- the forerunner to tequila.
  • Pumpkin: Pumpkin and squash were originally domesticated in Mexico, but were spread across North America. Squash, along with corn and beans, was one of the three sister crops, a sustainable method of growing the three crops together that allowed the same soils to be farmed repeatedly. It is thought that squash were originally grown for their seeds, and it wasn’t until later that the flesh of the fruit was eaten.
  • Sunflower seed oil: Sunflowers are native to southern North America, where they were first harvested by hunter/gatherer groups living in present day Mexico. The seeds produced contained high levels of fat (why we can use their oil), and were a much appreciated addition to early peoples diets. Sunflowers were cultivated in the South by the Aztec, while further north the Cherokee (along with other tribes) also began farming the vibrant flowers. Although they would be later cultivated further in Russia before making a second trip across the ocean, sunflowers are as American a crop as… tomatoes.
  • Vanilla: Vanilla was cultivated by the Totonacs living on the Mexican east coast. The Aztecs later conquered the Totonacs, which started the popularization of vanilla in the Americas. Aztecs would add vanilla to flavor their chocolate. It’s interesting to think what the most popular ice cream flavors would be without the Americas!
  • Apple cider vinegar: This is not a crop from the Americas. This is the one ingredient where I must admit, I failed- I tried finding a vinegar to use that was of new world origin, but aside from homemade vinegars I was unsuccessful.
  • Quinoa flour: Unlike many crops from the Americas, whose English names are taken from Spanish, Greek or other European words, quinoa is actually in the Quechuan language- it translates to “mother grain”. There are still around 10 million people in the world today who speak the language, primarily in Peru and Ecuador, the same regions and language of the Inca. It was predecessors of the Inca who first domesticated quinoa in the high Andes and it has been grown and eaten there ever since.
  • Baking soda: this ingredient is a little bit of a cheat- it is not a crop, so it was never “domesticated”, but it is needed to achieve the fluffy risen bread we all enjoy. However, it is interesting to note that the largest deposit of trona (the mineral which is the primary ingredient in baking soda) is found in Wyoming and is the source of 90% of the U.S. baking soda.
  • Maple syrup: Native Americans used the sugar maple sap not, as we do now, for maple syrup, but boiled it further until it crystalized in maple sugar so it would be easier to store throughout the year. The Algonquin say maple sugar collection started when a chief, running through the woods, threw his tomahawk which struck a tree. The clear sap trickled down the bark and into a birch bucket sitting below where his wife, thinking it was water, took the liquid and boiled their food in it. As the sap reduced, the resulting food was covered in the sweet, sticky syrup and so the collection of maple sugar began. Other tribes have different stories about how and why maple sugaring got stated- you can read some more of them here.
  • Pineapple: Pineapples are originally from Brazil, and were already being domesticated by 1492, although most sources I found described Christopher Columbus as “discovering” the crop. The Guarani Indians were, in fact, responsible for domesticating and spreading the sweet and slightly tart fruit across the Americas.
  • Pecans: Native American’s propagated the pecan trees across the present day United States. The name originates from the Algonquin, “pacane”, which describes a nut that needs to be cracked with a stone. Pecans were a favored staple in many tribes, due to being nutrient-rich and their relative ease of shelling (look up black walnuts for a comparison).

 

 

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