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November 25, 2013

A short course on the history of Thanksgiving foods

(Continued)

LOS ANGELES — TURKEY

The bird on many Americans' Thanksgiving tables today might be about the only thing that connects our national holiday with the romanticized meal in 1621 shared by Pilgrims and Indians and studied by so many generations of American schoolchildren.

William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, tells us in his account of the colony's early years that settlers' diets that fall included wild turkey along with venison, cod, bass, waterfowl and corn. The turkeys might have been quite welcome to the newcomers in their harsh and unfamiliar new surroundings. Thanks to their Spanish imperial rivals, the English had been enjoying the meaty bird for decades. Spaniards had encountered turkeys in their early forays in the New World and had brought the fowl back home.

Turkey became popular across Western Europe and around the Mediterranean and was one of the first American foods to be widely eaten in Europe. So well established in England was the New World bird that English settlers brought domesticated turkeys to America in the colonies' first years.

CRANBERRY SAUCE

Although certain varieties of cranberry grow in parts of Europe, the turkey's most popular dinner companion tells a story of New World cultural exchange. The fruit's name is a legacy of 17th century German settlers in America. Called in medieval England "moss-berry" and other similar terms that allude to the fruit's boggy habitat, English-speakers borrowed their German neighbors' term "kranberee," which refers to the long, cranelike stamens of the plant.

The fruit's use draws on native food culture. Indigenous peoples had long raised and eaten the berries. A 1672 account of the colonies reported that "Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat." Cranberry sauce has been paired with turkey, in particular, since at least the 18th century. Amelia Simmons, author of "American Cookery," published in 1796, suggested serving roast turkey with "boiled onions and cranberry-sauce." But, she added, the turkey might also be paired with mangoes, which in the 1790s were imported from India and sold in American cities. How differently might we taste and think about Thanksgiving had the tropical fruit become the typical accompaniment instead.

              

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