November 29, 2011

Jerusalem Artichokes

Although Thanksgiving is gone, I still want to write about food. I'm not ready yet for Christmas blogging! So here's an ode to an under-appreciated local food item: the Jerusalem artichoke.

This nutty tasting little tuber is native to eastern North America, and with the sunflower may be the only crops domesticated by the Indians of North America. (Corn, squash and beans were domesticated in Central and South America first, and then made their way north.)

Jerusalem artichoke Image from this blog.

The Jerusalem artichoke is not really an artichoke but is actually related to the sunflower. It also is not associated with the city of Jerusalem in any way. Then how the heck did it get its name?

In 1605, the French explorer Samuel Champlain came to Cape Cod looking to establish a French colony, but he abandoned the idea because the local Indians were somewhat hostile. Although the Indians weren't to his liking, he did appreciate their food, particularly a small tuber which they added to their stews. Champlain thought it tasted like an artichoke.

Bon appetit Champlain!

Champlain brought some of these "artichokes" back to France where they were quite popular. French farmers began to grow them, and they quickly spread to other countries including Italy. The Italians referred to both sunflowers and Champlain's artichokes with the word girasole, which means "turning towards the sun." When these girasole artichokes spread to England, their name gradually became corrupted to Jerusalem artichoke. They're still known by that name today, although they're sometimes also sold as sunchokes.

You can find Jerusalem artichokes in supermarkets (obviously!), but they do grow well in New England. I planted some next to my driveway a few years ago and they still come back each spring.

Special bonus Jerusalem artichoke fun fact: the Artichoke River in Newburyport, Massachusetts is an ancient Indian area named after this scrappy tuber!

The Artichoke River.

I found this information in Howard Russell's Indian New England Before the Mayflower.

November 22, 2011

A snowy Thanksgiving mystery

The image above is a vintage Currier and Ives print from the 1860s. It shows a quintessential New England scene: a snowy day, an old farm house, a horse drawn sleigh. It evokes a wonderful feeling of Christmas, doesn't it?

Then why is this print titled "Home for Thanksgiving?"

A similar question is raised by Lydia Marie Child's "Over the River and Through the Woods", which has the following lyrics:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

The song was originally published as a poem with the title "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day". Why are people riding a sleigh on Thanksgiving? Some parts of New England might have snow for the holiday, but November usually isn't really a big snow month around here.

Even factoring in global climate change, our Novembers are probably not that much different from Novembers in the 19th century. According to James W. Baker's Thanksgiving: the Biography of an American Holiday, something else explains all this snowy Thanksgiving imagery.

Before Thanksgiving became a national holiday permanently celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the November, its date was determined by local town, city, and state governments. The date varied quite a git. Some years it was celebrated in late November, but in other years it could be celebrated as late as December 22nd. Christmas was not celebrated in New England until late in the 19th century, so there was no conflict in having Thanksgiving so late in the year.

In fact, as reader Wicked Yankee presciently mentioned in a recent comment, Thanksgiving effectively took the place of Christmas in Puritan New England. And just as we associate snow with Christmas, the Puritans associated it with Thanksgiving. If Bing Crosby had been a Puritan, he would have sung "I'm dreaming of a white Thanksgiving." The Currier and Ives print and Lydia Marie Child's poem reflect this earlier ideal of the snowy white Thanksgiving.

Mystery solved. I hope you all have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, with or without snow!

November 10, 2011

The Turkey Shoot

Turkey has long been the focus of Thanksgiving feasts in New England. In the colonial era, both domestic turkeys and their wild cousins wound up on the Thanksgiving table.

Unfortunately for them, wild turkeys aren't the smartest birds. The famous naturalist James Audubon relates how he once killed three turkeys with one shotgun blast. Rather than fly away to save their lives, the other members of the flock strutted around their dead friends. Clearly they aren't too bright.

Given their small brains and our ancestors' propensity to shoot anything that moved, the wild turkey became nearly extinct in New England by the middle of the 19th century. One author claimed at the time that the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed on Mount Tom in 1847. Its taxidermied corpse was displayed at the Yale museum.

A turkey shoot, by John Whetten Ehninger.

There were still abundant domestic turkeys available in the 19th century, but some men in New England preferred shooting their Thanksgiving dinner. This led to a somewhat barbaric practice: the turkey shoot.

A farmer would tie one of his turkeys to a fence post or a tree, and then gather together a group of men. Each man was charged a fee, and whoever shot the turkey was allowed to take it home for dinner. It was not as easy as it sounds, since guns at that time were not particularly accurate, and the distance between shooters and turkey was around 300 feet. As James Baker writes in his book Thanksgiving: the Biography of an American Holiday,
"As in shooting galleries at modern carnivals, it took luck and skill to hit one's target, considering the distance, the movement of the bird, the firearms of the day, and the amount of alcohol consumed."
Happily, times have changed. Wild turkeys have made a comeback in New England and most turkey shoots now feature paper targets. For a Thanksgiving totally free of cruelty, I would suggest tofurkey. It may not taste exactly like turkey but it will be easier to shoot if you tie it to a tree.

November 06, 2011

When Was the First Thanksgiving?

When I was a kid, I was taught that the Pilgrims had the first Thanskgiving in 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest. They invited the local Wampanoag, who had helped them adapt to their new homeland, and everyone had a great time. We've been celebrating Thanksgiving ever since.

Apparently the history of Thanksgiving is a little more complicated. My friend Robert Sullivan gave me a copy of James W. Baker's Thanksgiving: the Biography of An American Holiday, and what I read was very illuminating. James Baker was the director of research at Plimoth Plantation, so I think he knows what he's talking about. It seems the roots of Thankgiving go back farther than Plymouth, all the way back to England.

Was this the first Thanksgiving?

According to Baker, the Puritans in England regularly declared fast days, when the people atoned for their sins, and days of thanksgiving, when they celebrated God's providence. Fast days were declared when there was trouble in the world - plagues, wars, droughts, etc. Thanksgiving days were declared when things were going well - victory in war, a bountiful harvest, the death of an unpopular dictator, etc. Fasts and thanksgiving days were not calendrical holidays celebrated annually on particular dates, like we have today, but were announced by the clergy based on world or community events, and were known as "providential holidays." Some years could have several of both, some years could have none.

Only clergy were allowed to announce fast days and thankgiving days, since both involved lengthy church services. On fast days, people abstained from all food. On thanksgiving days, the church service was followed by feasting.

After the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, the first holiday the clergy announced was a day of fasting in July of 1623, during a serious drought. As the Puritans established more settlements in New England they declared other providential holidays, to commemorate things like the end of the Pequot War, or an unusually large catch of fish.

As the colonies became larger, local governments took on the job of declaring annual fast days and thanksgiving days. A fast day was usually celebrated every spring (conveniently when there was not much food available), and a day of thanks was celebrated annually in late November or December, when there was plenty of food available after the harvest and livestock slaughter.

So where does the Pilgrim and Wampanoag harvest celebration of 1621 fit into this history? Interestingly, although the Pilgrims were quite thankful for the harvest, that celebration was not declared an official day of thanks by the clergy. In his journal, Governor Bradford makes note of the feasting, but does not call it a thanksgiving holiday. So technically, that celebration in 1621 was not really the first Thanksgiving. It was, however, a great party.

I think William DeLoss Love, a 19th century historian, sums it up best:

"It was not a thanksgiving at all, judged by their Puritan customs, which they kept in 1621; but as we look back upon it after nearly three centuries, it seems so wonderfully like the day we love that we claim it as the progenitor of our harvest feasts."