Do you remember Squanto? He's famous for being the liaison between the Wampanoag and the shivering Pilgrims who almost didn't make it through the winter of 1621. As such, we can thank him for bailing out the Mayflower-riding ancestors of, among others, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, George W. Bush and both his parents, Janis Joplin and Sarah Heath Palin.
The story many of us were taught described some sorry political refugees. They looked for a home in a New World far from the political upheavals of 17th-century Britain. But the next turn in that tale--kind American Indians teaching hapless Europeans how to farm--doesn't take into account Squanto's less than altruistic personality. Why would a man twice captured by Europeans, whose family and home were wiped out by European disease, help found a colony on the site of his former village?
Tisquantum--that was his real name--was quite a traveler. Charles Mann's recent book 1491 tells of his capture by Captain John Smith, the dashing self-promoter "of Pocahontas fame." Smith paraded Tisquantum around England and Spain until Catholic priests sprung him and he converted. He was transshipped to the New World, brought back to England, then joined an expedition to Maine in order to get home. When he got back, Tisquantum found that a 200-mile stretch of New England coast, including his native village of Patuxet, was carpeted with the bones of victims of European illness.
Tisquantum rejoined what was left of his neighbors further inland. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, Massasoit, the Wamapanoag sachem and Tisquantum's boss, allied with the Pilgrims against the pesky Narragansett to the south. As the Pilgrim-Wampanoag liaison, Tisquantum ingratiated himself with the settlers, purportedly teaching them how to fertilize maize and hunt fish. He coerced Indians to do his bidding by threatening that the Pilgrims would release the plague upon them if they didn't. But almost immediately, Squanto led an unsuccessful rebellion against Massassoit and died of a fever on the run from retribution. Thus, Plymouth flourished, and Mayflower descendants could run for vice president. And that more or less brings us up to the present day.
Thanksgiving traditions are more than simple hand-me-downs. Holiday myths, like that of Squanto, show us there's more to our past than the glossy generalizations of childhood. It makes one wonder what else is going on with our other holiday traditions. Given Tisquantum's complicated story, isn't it worth a look at the history of our favorite Thanksgiving foods? I promise, you won't take them for granted on this Thanksgiving Day.
"Animals have most likely been stuffed since man or his ancestors began cooking food. After cleaning out the body cavity of internal organs, you have a hollow space that just begs to be filled." So says FoodReference.com, and who could argue with them? At my family board, heady cornbread, dried cherries, pecans and chives burrow their way into the mushy, salty, fragrant heap within the turkey. More than just decadent filler, though, stuffing has a long history. "Farce" was a medieval term for forcemeat packed between the integuments of cooked animals, taking its name from the short theatrical pieces wedged between longer, dramatic presentations. Stuffing appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1538 in its modern sense. At the time, it also meant, "the strengthening of an army or military position." We are more familiar these days with "the true stuffynge of Featherbeddes, Mattresses, and Quyssheons." We will be especially so next Thursday evening, when we flop our bloated bodies over sofas after dinner. When they gorged themselves on stuffing, the Victorians used the alternate term "dressing" because, for some reason, they deemed the image of a cavity getting stuffed to be inappropriately suggestive.
The Wampanoag, who taught our foremothers how to grow corn and catch eel at Plymouth, called cranberries sassamanash. They squeezed their cleansing acid into arrow wounds. Whalers stocked them for long journeys to fight scurvy and some holistic doctors today prescribe them for urinary tract infections. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered them served to troops on Thanksgiving, 1864. They're the state fruit of Wisconsin. Andrew Hall first commercially harvested cranberries in 1816. Thousands of red berries, floating in water, a man in groin-high boots, humming Do you have to? Do you have to? Do you have to let it linger?--this standard image comes from Hall's ingenious harvesting process. Cranberries naturally grow in low, sandy bogs. Hall flooded his bog with water, knocked all the berries off the bushes, then scooped up the naturally buoyant fruit. The method hasn't changed much, except that some farmers, so as not to damage the plants, comb berries from the vines by helicopter.
Broccoli's waxy stems always squeak against the teeth and its green, bulbous appearance has caused it to be ridiculed for decades as appearing somehow extraterrestrial. Italian immigrants had always grown it in their backyards, but broccoli didn't become a widely-known veggie until the entrepreneurial D'Arrigo brothers started large-scale farming in California in the 1920s. Though Thomas Jefferson grew broccoli at Monticello, most folks in the US thought the cerebral-looking stems fairly alien until the D'Arrigos undertook a massive radio advertisement campaign in the 30s. "Andy Boy Broccoli" named for the infant son of Stephano D'Arrigo, was the first branded and advertised vegetable. Broccoli started to catch on, but not before E.B. White penned a cartoon for the New Yorker making fun of the new staple: "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it," which was apparently funny in 1928. Years later, a petulant President Bush the First sketched out his agricultural policy in similar terms: "I do not like broccoli and I haven't liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it, and I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli." His comment spurred a protest that took the form of a ten-ton heap of broccoli on the lawn of the White House. China holds 20 percent of foreign-owned US debt, and produces half the world's broccoli. We have yet to see Barbara Bush's recipe for six billion dollars of debt smothered in cheese.
China also produces 80 percent of the world's sweet potatoes. At the beginning of the last century, Americans ate an average of 13 pounds of sweet potatoes yearly; now we eat less than four. North Carolina accounts for 40 percent of the domestic production of these delicious vegetables. Americans tend to confuse the sweet potato with the yam, its very distant cousin. While sweet potatoes are North American, yams are an African tuber whose name, nyami, was applied to the starchy American plant by West African slaves. Moreover, the sweet potato is not technically a potato. It's a storage root, used to amass energy in the form of carbohydrates. In a way, eating sweet potatoes steals the helpless plant's reserve energy, amassed in the form of carbohydrates to be broken down later, much as my dad eats my helping of candied yams, which aren't really yams at all.
You'll remember from A Christmas Carol that in Charles Dickens' day, turkey was much more expensive than goose--Scrooge upgrades Bob Crachit's holiday meal in an act of generosity. In the United States, pork ribs were, in fact, the most common holiday meal until commercial turkey farming began in the 1940s. Turkeys evolved at about the time our ape ancestor began to walk upright. Since then, Americans' appetite for white meat, which comes from the breast, has led turkey producers to breed increasingly busty birds. The result of this selective breeding is turkeys that cannot fly, run or reproduce without artificial insemination, since top-heavy toms cannot mount their hens. "My junior year chemistry teacher, Dr. Heart, was married to a man who worked as a turkey artificial inseminator in Sonoma," a Brown student (who asked to remain nameless) told the Independent. "We called him the turkey masturbator. How could I have known the essential nature of his occupation?" Humans' unnatural selection has also robbed the turkey of its magnificent colors, since feather pigmentation can discolor meat. The Broadbreasted White is now the only breed in commercial production. Gone is the bronze, feathered aegis that made Benjamin Franklin prefer the turkey, a "Bird of Courage," over the scavenging bald eagle. A turkey, he wrote, "would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on." We've come a long way from the rosy days of brave turkeys defending us from undue taxation: The New York Times reports this week that Spam sales are on the rise in response to the growing recession. Just in time for the holiday, Spam.com says their turkey substitute is "100 % turkey delicious. Suitable with stuffing at Thanksgiving." In lieu of the traditional White House turkey pardoning, will George Bush bail out Thanksgiving?
NICK GREENE B'10 could have been a Daughter of the American Revolution, if one Esther Greene had gotten her act together a few years earlier.