Pass the oysters

Rethinking Thanksgiving dinner

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The original Thanksgiving wasn’t exactly the Pilgrim and Indian love-fest we collectively misremember.

But despite growing recognition of the degree to which the Thanksgiving story has been rewritten, the same analysis has not been widely applied to the holiday’s traditional foods.

We still tend to cook the same dishes each year, dictated more by habit than history. The original Thanksgiving did not include turkey, pumpkin pie and other contemporary Thanksgiving staples. But it did, according to historians, include a lot of seafood, thanks to the event’s location on the Massachusetts coast.

Likely foods included cod, oysters and other shellfish, as well as venison. The first historical mention of turkeys at Thanksgiving was in an 1827 novel, Northwood, by Sarah Josepha Hale.

One part of the Thanksgiving story that’s true is that, afterwards, the Indians did indeed help the Pilgrims through the winter. Two years later, a Pilgrim preacher named Mather the Elder was able to thank God for smallpox, which had by that point killed many Wampanoag. A few years later many of the remaining Wampanoag died in King Philip’s War.

Compared to the holiday’s historical reality, looking at the actual food that was served at Thanksgiving is much less depressing. While there was no pie, the Pilgrims might have contributed stewed pumpkin, along with boiled bread (dumplings) and cheese curd fritters. And there might have been Sobaheg, a Wampanoag recipe still being made today by tribal members.

Sobaheg includes a trio of vegetables that are commonly associated with Native American farmers: corn, beans and squash. It also contains some kind of meat, like venison, or even turkey.

Indeed, centuries before European contact, Native Americans of the region had already domesticated turkeys. It just so happened, according to historians, that turkey wasn’t served during the original three-day bash. But if the historians are wrong, and some turkey had somehow snuck its way onto the original Thanksgiving table, it could very well have been via the Sobaheg.

Some Sobaheg recipes include clam juice, a simple version of oyster sauce, which has become indispensable in my kitchen. The simple fact that clam juice is more authentic to Thanksgiving than turkey is all the reminder we need that there is more to the Thanksgiving picture than what we’ve been fed.



Ingredients (for a medium pot)

1 cup dry beans 

2 cups hominy corn (dried, canned, or frozen)

1-2 pounds turkey, white or dark meat
1 pound winter squash, trimmed and cubed
1 teaspoons each garlic and onion powder
An 8-oz bottle of clam juice
Salt or soy sauce to taste.
Optional: half-cup raw sunflower seeds, pounded to a course flour

There is a lot of leeway, in terms of how mushy you like your corn, beans and squash. I like the beans soft, but the squash and corn a bit more toothy. Adjust your procedure according to your own tastes.

Cook the beans in water until they’re nearly tender. If you’re using dried hominy corn—as opposed to canned or frozen—it should be cooked with the beans. While the beans are cooking, roast your turkey at 250 until it’s browned. Turn the oven off and let the turkey slowly cool.

When beans are soft, change the water, and set cooking on medium. If using frozen hominy, add it now. Add onion and garlic powders. When the turkey is cool enough to work with, pull it into pieces and add them to the pot. Let it simmer. If using canned hominy, add it now. About an hour before serving time, add the squash chunks. Adjust seasonings with salt or chicken bullion. Add sunflower seed flour, if using it, and stir it in.

It’s a simple, yet texturally diverse pot of stew, full of complementary flavors. And if you want to take it even further, a dollop of cranberry sauce adds a refreshing zing— even if there weren’t cranberries at the original Thanksgiving.

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