A thankful history

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday with uniquely American foods that celebrate the annual seasonal harvest and gives thanks for nature’s bounty. And indeed the bounty of  America appeared great to Europeans who came during the 17th century. This was the period of the “Little Ice Age” in Europe (some real climate change that appeared and then vanished again after nearly a century—still without any real explanation). The European farmlands were overpopulated, the soil was exhausted, and the menu was limited to only 16 different plants that could be grown as foods throughout Europe. 

But here, important everyday foods like corn, cranberry, potato, squash, peppers, pumpkin, tomato, chocolate, and, of course, turkey, had all been developed as food sources by Native Americans. And, fortunately, they introduced these foods to the European settlers. These foods provided healthy sources of nutrients and also represented sources for greater dietary diversity, which is itself more healthy than having to rely on a handful of restricted food items.

And, eventually, they also became important foods to nourish growing populations in Europe and elsewhere around the globe, such as corn and potatoes, as agricultural practices were spread by Europeans from North and South America. Although the Spanish and French explorers began encountering these new plant foods in the 1500’s, it took over 200 years to get them accepted onto actual European menus. For example, the tomato was originally considered poisonous in Europe as it comes from the Solanaceae family of plants, which includes deadly nightshade. And, believe it or not, tomato didn’t actually appear on a menu in Italy until the later  1700s. (Today, it is recognized as virtually the only natural source of all-important lycopene for prostate health which I helped discover in the early 1980s).

One of the leading voices for combining European cooking with native American foods was Thomas Jefferson. Coming from a large plantation engaged in complex and “modern”  scientific agriculture at Monticello, with crop rotations and other innovations, Jefferson became known popularly as much as a connoisseur and epicure as a politician and diplomat. His writing extensively covers fowl and meat dishes, including beef, chicken, goose, ham, mutton, turkey and venison. Fish and seafood recipes are also plentiful.

As a day of thanks, our late November tradition goes back to observations among the European settlers with their Native American hosts. The foods shared probably included venison and seafoods, such as plentiful lobster and oysters, in addition to corn, squash and turkey. Although the post-Civil War revision of history (as rewritten by the victors) places the “first” Thanksgiving here in Massachusetts among the Puritans who settled in 1620, the first such event actually occurred at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia earlier. Which makes sense, since the harvest season is long over in New England by November, but extends later in the South.

As you can see, foods are not only a critical component of our health but of our history. So today, we turn our attention to the more pleasurable aspects of preparing, eating and sharing foods. And perhaps, for one day, not just worrying about every bite we put in our mouths (although if you follow the tips in my Top of the Food Chain Cure for Obesity, you’ll never have to).