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Native American Origins of Thanksgiving (and Other Common) Foods

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Native American Origins of Thanksgiving (and Other Common) Foods

Wild turkey of the Eastern United States. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Say the word "Thanksgiving" and you invariably conjure images of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and many other foods common in the world today (not just the United States). But few people realize that well over 50% of the world's most commonly grown crops today are indigenous to the Americas, many of which were cultivated by Native Americans for millennia before the arrival of Europeans and European cuisine.

Thanksgiving Foods

We know from historical documents that the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621 included venison, fowl (probably duck and/or geese), turkey and Indian corn. There are only two primary source documents in existence about that day, and these are the only foods specifically mentioned. However, it is possible to surmise what other foods may have been present. One of the documents (written by William Bradford, governor of the colony), mentions the pilgrims having been quite successful in fishing, acquiring "cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion." Considering that on that day there were probably upwards of 140 or 150 people to feed (approximately 90 of them Indians, plus half of the 102 Mayflower Pilgrims who survived the journey), we can guess that there likely was fish served in addition to the other meats.

Cranberries grow wild throughout the American east, from Georgia to Canada and as far west as Minnesota and could also have been at the first Thanksgiving feast, although there is no historical documentation to substantiate the supposition. Native peoples were well acquainted with the bitter berry’s preservative qualities and had been using it in pemmican and other traditional preserved foods, as well as for a color dye.

The Three Sisters

Besides corn we can also guess some of the other plant-based foods the feasters may have enjoyed. Indians of the New England region relied on corn, beans and squash, referring to them as the “Three Sisters.” They were planted together to enhance their crop yields, so it's safe to assume that in addition to corn, beans and squash (very likely pumpkins) would have been part of the meal. Chef Richard Hetzler guesses that there was probably a very heavy type of cornbread because there was no leavening used in the early cornbread recipes.

Other Common Indigenous Foods

Indigenous peoples from both North and South America have long histories with food production which took the forms of not only hunting and gathering, but farming as well. Spanish colonists first encountered tomatoes in 1519 when Cortez found them growing in the gardens of Montezuma, the Aztec leader in present day Mexico. He brought back seeds with him to Spain where they were planted for ornamental purposes. The word tomato comes from the Spanish “tomate” which is a derivation of the Nahuatl Indian word “tomatl.” Potatoes were first imported to Europe by Christopher Columbus who was introduced to the sweet potato variety by the Taino Indians of the Caribbean Island. The Taino word was “batata” which evolved into today’s familiar “potato.”

In what is now the continental United States people enjoyed staple foods today considered delicacies. The Annishinabe of the Great Lakes region long ago learned how to harvest wild rice from canoes in the wetlands where it grows. Wild rice was to them what the buffalo was to Plains tribes, what salmon was to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest and what acorns were to California tribes. The Annishinabe, along with many other tribes of the northeast, knew how to tap into maple trees to extract its sap and process it into maple syrup (although there is no documentation to prove it, it does not require a stretch of the imagination to think that maple syrup was present at the Thanksgiving feast of the Mayflower pilgrims).

In the Southwest, domesticated corn (originally a wild grass) had come to the Pueblo tribes as early as 700 A.D. from its origins in Mexico where it had been grown domestically since at least 3,000 years prior to that. Chili peppers are thought to have their origins in South America in both cold climate highlands and warmer tropical regions. There is evidence of some varieties growing in the wild as far back as 7200 to 5200 B.C. And some beans, such as the tepary beans eaten by the Tohono O’odham and Pima people, were indigenous to the Sonoran desert where they were harvested in the wild as a staple food.

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