As you sit down to eat Thanksgiving dinner you should give thanks for all those non-native species you are about to consume and all of the non-native cultures that brought them to you. Yes, most Thanksgiving meals will consist of plants and animals not native to North America. But then we humans are not native to North America either- even if we have the blood of the first people who crossed into North America from Siberia. We are all immigrants and our Thanksgiving meal reflects the mingling of foods and cultures across time.
Take that turkey, crispy brown on the outside and juicy inside, the traditional centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. You might remember stories of the early immigrant Europeans sitting down to eat turkey with the original inhabitants of the land. Turkeys were a native species; at least Eastern North America had turkey populations before Europeans arrived. Those turkeys may have migrated from Central America early in history. Turkeys were first domesticated in Central America by the Aztecs and southern North American indigenous tribes such as the Anasazi. The Spaniards took turkeys back to Europe from their early explorations and by the time the first English colonists celebrated Thanksgiving there were a few flocks of turkeys in Spain. But the colonists did not bring turkeys here.
Food historians tell us that turkey probably wasn’t on that first menu. Yes there were turkeys in the Eastern woodlands at that time. But just as they are hard to hunt today they were probably equally hard to hunt then and not as common as other “fowls” in the area – such as ducks and geese and passenger pigeons. The “fowl” described on the menu by early writers was most likely waterfowl of some sort and since passenger pigeons were so abundant and so easy to kill they were probably part of the meal too. And we do know that the Wampanoag residents of the area brought 5 deer to the feast so “fowl” was probably only a small part of that first Thanksgiving meal in 1621. Fish and shellfish were also part of the feast. A true North American Thanksgiving meal would include venison, pigeon, wild goose, fish and clams.
But let’s move on to other parts of the now traditional Thanksgiving meal. Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes are both crops that would not have been at that first Thanksgiving. Both potatoes come from Central and South America. (Yams are native to Africa.) Columbus brought sweet potatoes back to Europe from one of his early trips. Neither was being grown or collected in the eastern woodlands in 1621. But these immigrant potato crops are certainly very important in the world now. Potatoes are grown in nearly every temperate area of the world and sweet potatoes in the tropical and semi-tropical areas.
If you are enjoying either one of these potatoes be thankful that these immigrant species have been so thoroughly inserted into our culture. The first Thanksgiving was celebrating a good first harvest so it’s likely that European root crops like turnips, parsnips and rutabaga planted that year may have been present. None of these crops are native to North America.
What about corn –you may ask- isn’t that a native North American crop? It’s true that some Eastern woodland natives cultivated corn and they showed the early settlers how to plant and harvest it. Corn was at the first Thanksgiving, probably in the form of a coarse meal made into cakes or as parched corn. But corn was developed from wild grasses 7,000 years ago in Central America. Corn does not occur naturally in the wild. Through trade, corn reached the northern parts of North America and some indigenous people adopted the cultivation of it. Despite the propaganda of corn producers corn was not the staple diet of most indigenous tribes in North America. Some tribes grew it; other tribes didn’t although they traded meat and other goods for it on occasion.
If you are enjoying corn, either as cornbread stuffing or sweet corn on Thanksgiving you are closer to enjoying a native food than most other items on the menu but it’s debatable whether it could be considered a true North American crop.
If your Thanksgiving feast includes green bean casserole, peas or lentils you are also eating immigrant crops. Green beans and beans such as navy, lima and kidney beans come to us from Central and South America. The tribes of the northeast had obtained beans from trading by the time of the first Thanksgiving and they may have been part of the feast. Early European immigrants probably grew peas in their gardens, which originated in the area of Asia now called Thailand. They were in Europe for centuries before the immigration to the new world. Lentils are an immigrant from the Mid-East.
Those immigrants from the Mideast
Wheat may have been on the first Thanksgiving menu but it’s doubtful that the first harvest produced much of it and stores carried over from Europe would have been low or non-existent. Wheat originated in the Mideast – the area around Syria and Turkey. If you are eating rolls, bread stuffing, pie crust and other assorted goodies made from wheat flour then you should be thankful for these immigrants from Syria.
All of your salad ingredients are probably immigrants or non-native. Tomatoes and peppers from Central and South America, carrots and greens of various sorts are native to Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa and Mid- East. Lettuce is another important Mideastern immigrant, originally being domesticated in Egypt. Onions were either from Asia or the area now called Iran according to which food historian you reference. Onions were probably grown for that first harvest and used abundantly. Of course some native greens may have been included in the first Thanksgiving but in those times greens weren’t often served at feasts for primarily men.
There would have been no beef, pork or cow’s milk or cheese at the first Thanksgiving. There may have been some goat’s milk or cheese. But all of these animals are not native to the Americas. Cattle were first domesticated in Iran, although wild species ranged across Europe and Asia. Hogs were domesticated in Asia and China. Goats, maybe the first animals domesticated after dogs, were domesticated in and are native to Iran, Irag, and Turkey. Goats are one of the most successful immigrant species – occurring almost everywhere in the world now, but there were no goats in the New World before Europeans arrived. (There were some species of wild sheep.) Sheep were also domesticated in the Mideast.
Chickens came from Southeast Asia. The colonists brought them to the new world. We don’t know if there were any egg dishes and whether the eggs were from domesticated hens or collected from wild birds such as ducks. Since it was autumn eggs were probably not on the menu.
The true native foods
What would native foods eaten traditionally at Thanksgiving include? Pumpkins or squash originated in Mexico and what is the southwestern part of the United States. They were spread by trade to northern America. At the first Thanksgiving these would not have been sweetened with sugar, unless a Native American offered the cooks some maple sugar. Cane sugar is native to India, beet sugar to Europe. Honey wasn’t a product found in North America until Europeans brought honeybees here. Pumpkins and squash were roasted and made into soups.
Cranberries are a true North American native food you can be thankful for. They would not have been sweetened with sugar and its really unknown if they were present at the first Thanksgiving meal. Nuts like black walnuts, pecans, and hickories, which are North American natives, may have been eaten in various dishes. Blueberries are also native and may have been eaten at the meal.
When people of various cultures mingle, new foods and methods of producing food are exchanged. This is a significant help to both cultures. Even today the mingling of cultures opens our minds and mouths to new ways of thinking and eating.
That first Thanksgiving meal brought together two cultures, one that had been on the land for a long time and one newly arrived. While both parties would go on to commit many wrongs against each other at that first Thanksgiving the original occupants were willing to help and feed the immigrants. At that first meal silent partners across the globe and through time contributed to the meal.
As we sit down to a bountiful feast or even a meager meal this Thanksgiving we should be thankful for the migration and immigration of species, both plants, animals and humans. We should be thankful for the opportunity to try new foods and learn new things from people that come from far places. Change, assimilation, sharing information, tolerance and empathy serve to advance civilization. Be thankful that so many cultures and civilizations contributed to your meal and the country we live in.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
How to grow cranberries
Purple nut sedge and our early ancestors
Caring for a Norfolk Island Pine
You can read the authors weekly garden blog here.