The food set at the table during Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving, or whatever people come up with to celebrate families and friends eating together is very significant to this country’s dominant culture and Native America. Many people of American society refer to the celebration of November 1621 as the “first Thanksgiving.” It is said to be celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in a New land. The feast was recorded to last three days. Allegedly, It was attended by 90 tribe members of the Wampanoag people and 53 survivors of the Mayflower. (there are concerns of accuracy to these accounts.
2.) There is also material on Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as a holiday as a way to bring a hobbled country during the Civil War back together in 1863. https://bioneers.org/how-to-decolonize-your-thanksgiving-in-2023-zmaz2311/
3.) A letter-writing campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale to Lincoln and finalized sixty years later as a federal holiday, “The House agreed to the amendment, and President (Franklin) Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941, thus establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.”
4.) There is a lot to unpack on how this Holiday became quoted from George Washington, and Lincoln using it as a balm for a bruised nation, to the holiday being moved to the third Thursday of November, and how the Thanksgiving holiday is being re-established as a day of Mourning in Native Circles. “For those descended from those who survived, it is not Thanksgiving – it is a National Day of Mourning”
5.) While all of these historical stories are being examined for accuracy, cultural relevance, and media spin that may be controversial, I listed some websites for those who want to do a deep dive into the topics of this discussion.
But really, let’s talk first foods!
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want (1943). Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.
Norman Rockwell was a midcentury Americana painter. He was famous for his midwestern values paintings. His subjects were often Euro-American midwestern people whose ordinary lives were celebrated on his canvases. One iconic painting is the family sitting at the table while Grandma places the turkey ready to be carved by Grandpa, the family at the table shows excitement and exuberance. While I could continue on into the controversies surrounding the Holiday of Thanksgiving, and the fact that the artist was gearing his work towards the Western Dominant culture, instead I want to take a closer look at the food. I should say First Foods.
The latter additions of marshmallows, candies, Ice Cream, and other yummy but not related to the First Foods are not in play here. Our gaze at the bones of this holiday’s table is what we are contemplating.
First Foods are the Backbone of the Seasons’ Table
OMG! Who doesn’t love a good pumpkin pie, a warm pumpkin spice latte, or pumpkin cookies? But this big orange squash is the first food from this continent. Cucurbita moschata (pumpkin), is a winter squash and has many different varieties cultivated over the last several hundred years. “In the United States, any round orange squash may be called a pumpkin, but the term has no actual botanical meaning. Similarly, “gourd” is the conventional term used for plants in the genera Cucurbita (“squash”) and Lagenaria, so a pumpkin is also technically a gourd.”-Real Simple
What gives pumpkins their orange color is beta-carotene. Pumpkins contain alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, and many other beneficial antioxidants. Antioxidants help reduce the risk of heart disease, and various cancers, and fight against damaged skin cells from free radicals that quicken the aging process.
“Pumpkin is also high in vitamin C, which is essential for healthy skin. Your body needs this vitamin to make collagen, a protein that keeps your skin strong and healthy.” https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/pumpkin#TOC_TITLE_HDR_9
From the University of California, “Scientists believe that pumpkins originated in North America about 9000 years ago. The oldest pumpkin seeds have been found in Mexico and date back to somewhere between 7000-5550 B.C”
Among my traditions, we would boil pumpkin seeds for a couple of hours and then give the concentrated drink to a person who is suffering from intestinal worms from bad food.
Pumpkins are part of the three sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash. Pumpkins (along with other forms of squash) are An important food staple among Native Americans. We grow the squash next to corn and beans, which allows the three crops to sustain each other. The Corn’s stalk serves as the pole for the beans to climb; beans are nourished by the sun and keep the corn stalks stable on windy days, while also replenishing the soil. The pumpkin roots and leaves keep out aggressive plants and protect the base of the corn’s stalk. Pumpkin is not the only squash used in this way but one of many.
For those like me who are anemic a handful of pumpkin seeds carry a great deal of natural Iron and are enriching for the blood. I also like to roast my pumpkin seeds for a tasty treat.
“They are also rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants such as selenium and beta carotene. Additionally, they are a high source of iron. One cup of pumpkin seeds contains 9.52 milligrams (mg) of iron, a significant portion of the 18 mg recommended daily allowance (RDA).., Source for premenopausal females and 8 mg for males and postmenopausal females. Pumpkin seeds also contain zinc, phosphorus, manganese, protein, and fiber.” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/303864#:~:text=Additionally%2C%20they%20are%20a%20high,for%20males%20and%20postmenopausal%20females.
I don’t know about anyone else but I love the taste of corn roasted in tinfoil with butter, especially in an outdoor campfire. Long a First Foods staple, I can’t imagine a life without corn. This First Food is often associated with the fall season table. Heated up from the can or short cobs steaming with butter and other spices placed on a dish as a side to the main meat course. The corn husks are used in a variety of cultural practices and arts. I will mention one but I cannot name some in a public article due to traditional private practices. I like to use corn husks for the making of corn dolls. (No, they are not from Holland or other places in Europe, as some online retailers would like you to believe. If you want to know about traditional crop dolls from Europe then you want to research straw dolls made from wheat.) The Husks are also used to wrap other foods for roasting and steaming.
Where did the name corn come from? “The word “corn” comes from the Old English via Old Norse korn, meaning “grain.” In most of the world, “corn” simply means the cereal crop most dominant in a region and can refer to any number of grains such as rye, wheat or oats” -Washington Post
What we know as the look of corn today differs wildly from the small maize grass plant cultivated in Mexico thousands of years ago.
“Corn is the ancient grain of the New World. It was first cultivated 9,000 years ago in present-day southern Mexico and Central America.”-Washington Post
Corn needs humans to continue in its crop cycle, and there are many different cultivars (Varieties) of corn as a first food or medicinal use plant. Corn has also become a global crop meaning that people need corn as part of their food staples.
“Over the last decade, corn exports have ranged from 7% to as much as 20% of U.S. corn production. In its most recent World Agricultural Supply & Demand Estimates (WASDE) report published on April 11th, USDA estimated that 2022 crop corn exports would total 1.85 billion bushels, equal to about 13% of U.S. production.” – Purdue University
Corn silk with boiled water poured over it and allowed to steep for three to five minutes is often used as a diuretic for those who have water retention issues. (Note, Wisdom of The Elders does not offer Doctor’s advice for that you need to go to your medical practitioner)
When learning about America’s first foods corn is part of the top most recognizable resources. Many people will carry a kernel of the Zea mays, “Corn” with them, once again demonstrating how important this First Food is.
Oh yes, I said Sweet Potatoes, they are a First Food. The origin and domestication of the sweet potato occurred in Central and South America. It is believed that In Central America, domesticated sweet potatoes were present at least 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. Sources vary on exact dates. People love to bake them and add butter and sometimes confection sugars, or brown sugar with them, or honey to sweeten them up even more.
Known Indigenously as batatas, not to be confused with yams. Yams are closely related to lilies and grasses. Native to Africa and Asia in comparison to sweet potatoes, yams are starchier and drier. The sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are members of the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae)
Sweet potatoes with wild rice are a wonderful warming First food dish. Made in many different ways, you can add butter, green onions, or chilies. It’s an open canvas of flavors for the adventurous the wild rice does take about an hour to cook. I love to add Cayenne to make a sweet potato savory dish.
“Research has found that sweet potatoes may have several health benefits. Some of those benefits include protecting against chronic diseases, fighting inflammation, regulating blood sugar levels, and supporting weight loss.”
My grandmother always pushed us towards eating sweet potatoes. As a child, I loved both sweet potatoes and white potatoes. Really anything with the name potato. Sweet potatoes. It seemed she understood the health benefits of potatoes. A single sweet potato provides nutrients, such as vitamins A and C, manganese, potassium, and beta-carotene. They contain minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and copper.
I was at a gaming night with some friends years ago. We were playing a role-playing game and the leader assigned us each a role, I was a bard. This one guy that my friend invited was really impressed with potatoes and all things Irish, in the course of the conversation declared their origin in Ireland. I calmly explained to him that actually potatoes come from the Andes and were a common staple of the Incas. He jumped out of his chair; this was not what he grew up learning. I must be wrong. Out came his cell phone and Uncle Google. It is a common factor that most people in Western Society do not know the origins of their food and assume it’s always been with their people. Potatoes are always a shocker to someone when teaching them about first foods. In 1532, the Spanish invaders took the tubers across the Atlantic, as they did with other crops such as tomatoes, avocados, cacao pods (where we get chocolate from), and corn.
“The humble potato was domesticated in the South American Andes some 8,000 years ago and was only brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, from where it spread west and northwards.”
It is a global crop like corn. Potatoes are the world’s fourth-largest crop after rice, wheat, and Zia Mayes (Maize) Easy to grow and cultivate into other varieties people around the world have entire histories of this plant’s effect on their societies. “Just a century earlier, a potato disease prompted a famine that halved Ireland’s population in a few years, producing a decades-long cascading effect of social and economic turmoil. And as you read these lines, the world’s leading potato producers today are China, India, Russia, and Ukraine, respectively.”- By Diego Arguedas Ortiz 3rd March 2020 (Not currently with the war between Russia and Ukraine of course)
Ooh, the warm dish served with au gratin potatoes and cheese. Or the wonderful First Foods dish someone passed to me at a celebratory feast day with Moose, wild rice and potato, and a side of mashed cranberries.
What made potatoes so valuable on a world scale is the nutrients especially when the world at large was suffering from a lack of cheap nutritious food for the poor masses.
“In addition to starch, potatoes contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They’re rich in vitamin C, which is an antioxidant. Potatoes were a life-saving food source in early times because vitamin C prevented scurvy. Another major nutrient in potatoes is potassium, an electrolyte that aids in the workings of our heart, muscles, and nervous system. Potato skin contains fiber, which is important for digestive health.”- UC Davis Health dietetic Intern Adrienne Posner https://health.ucdavis.edu/blog/good-food/potato-health-benefits-and-why-you-should-eat-more-spuds/2022/05
Many First Foods that include a meat dish have some spice or berries served or cooked with them. Like all dishes that have fruit, it cleanses the palate and may even be a digestive aid after a heavy meal. Sometimes the fruits also add extra nutrients to the meal. While there are many seasonal berries that can be covered in this article, I want to focus on one berry type that is well-known to the modern “Thanksgiving table.” Childhood memories often include jellied cranberry that comes from a can, or cranberry relishes, also from a can if mom couldn’t afford the more expensive cranberries in a bag. Cranberries made the turkey leftovers more palatable.
Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) The Cranberry is native to the swamps and bogs of northeastern North America. It belongs to the Heath, or Heather family (Ericaceae), which is a very widespread and about 3500 species! Members of this family occur from colder regions to the tropics on both coasts.
Native Americans use them for food, fabric dye, and medicine. The high nutritive value of cranberries is currently being studied and touted by scientists and medical experts.
“People call cranberries a superfood for good reason: They have all kinds of health-boosting benefits. They’re high in antioxidants. A study found that out of 20 common fruits, cranberries have the highest level of phenols, a type of antioxidant. (Red grapes were a distant second.)” -WebMD
Some doctors will now suggest taking cranberry supplements or drinking cranberry juice for kidney and urinary tract health. I remember when it was thought that cranberry juice was a folksy remedy. I remember the trips to the grocery store to get some of the juice that always seemed so tart to me far from the seasonal table where the cranberry relish was sweetened.
“Studies have shown that they may have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects.”-WebMD
Some Native Americans use cranberries in a variety of foods. Including a combination of crushed cranberries, dried deer meat, and melted fat, a deer version of pemmican. Cranberries are used to make the most beautiful red die for fibers for rugs, clothing, and baskets.
“Cranberry has been shown to inhibit common forms of bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Listeria monocytogenes.”-Mount Sinai
While we have just visited a few of the dishes on this deep dive of First Foods used Nationally during this holiday season I cannot get to all of them so I carefully selected a few. But before I finish this article there is one more very important First Food that I need to cover and that is Turkey.
There are questions on what first meat food was at the feast table back then. Many have suggested it was more likely deer, or fish. lobster or crab and maybe some turkey. Let’s talk about the bird.
European settlers saw the resemblance of the American bird to the Guinea Fowl that had been imported from the Turks to the rest of Europe as a food source. With importing the wild American Turkey to Europe, the Turkey name stuck and has carried on to this day.
“There is archaeological evidence of wild turkeys being domesticated by certain indigenous groups as far back as 2,000 years ago. Not all native communities domesticated the birds since they were so abundant, but tribes in the American southeast, southwest, central Mexico, and Guatemala were especially known for their domestication of turkeys.”-Christine Anhalt-Depies
The importance of the Wild Turkey culturally as well as a food source is significant and Indigenous peoples continue to use the feathers in regalia, representation of elder wisdom, and cultural arts.
“A team led by Washington State University archaeologists analyzed an approximately 800-year-old, 99 x 108 cm (about 39 x 42.5 inches) turkey feather blanket from southeastern Utah to get a better idea of how it was made. Their work revealed thousands of downy body feathers were wrapped around 180 meters (nearly 200 yards) of yucca fiber cord to make the blanket.”- By WSU News & Media Relations
As a food resource, Turkey is a great source of protein, rich in many vitamins and minerals, and is low-fat – It’s rich in B-complex vitamins niacin, B6 and B12. Minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and Iron. You can get more mineral and health benefits from WebMD.
I was on a day trip up through Gifford Pinchot National Forest and out onto the road wandered a large group of wild turkeys. It was so beautiful to see these wild birds calmly walking across the road. As I waited for them to make their way, I tried to come up with jokes on “Why did Turkey cross the road?” Couldn’t figure out a suitable one and was cracking myself up anyway.
I know there is a great deal of information in this post as well as quite a bit left out. If you did not see your First Foods listed here, I am aware there are many. I tried to focus on a few that are widely known but not necessarily known for their historical and cultural relevance.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article on First Foods are the Backbone of the Seasons’ Table
Wisdom of The Elders is not a medical organization. If you have any medical questions, please seek out your healthcare practitioner’s advice.