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Celebrating Thanksgiving with the foods & plants of the Americas

Celebrating Thanksgiving with the foods & plants of the Americas


Thanksgiving Dinner

New World Foods: Thanksgiving Dinner

Many plants we take for granted that originated in the New World have become such important food staples and have affected nearly every culture’s cuisine. So much so that we often forget that foods we associate with different countries had their origins in the Americas.

The same can be said for many ornamental plants now grown in gardens around the world.

So, I think it would be fun this Thanksgiving to look at some of the foods we eat for this holiday and the plants we use to decorate our homes, all of which makes this a truly American holiday and tradition.

The feature of the Thanksgiving Day Menu is, of course, the turkey. The largest game bird in North America, the turkey did not originate in Turkey, as some believe. So, how did it get its name? The Spaniards came back to the Old World with numerous plants and animals, including the turkey. At that time, many goods came to the rest of Europe via Constantinople, a major distribution center that was strategic in its location on the trade routes between Asia and Europe. The North American bird we now know as “turkey” eventually worked its way East and was distributed to the rest of Europe through Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Because almost anything coming out of Constantinople in Turkey would have a tag of “Turkey” attached to it, like Turkish rugs, etc., the name attached to the turkey by the English was Turkey coq, later shortened to turkey.

If we proceed down through the menu, probably the most universally featured side dish on the Thanksgiving Dinner menu would be mashed potatoes.

Although we often associate potatoes with the Irish and Ireland, potatoes actually originated in South America. They are an important food staple around the world, so much so that the country of Ireland adopted the potato as its own, both to its benefit and its downfall. The potato was such an important crop that it allowed the Irish to thrive and helped to contribute to a population explosion in Ireland. The Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, which was brought on by Potato Blight,  so obliterated the crop that many in Ireland moved to North America in a vast migration that left more Irish in the US and Canada than in Ireland itself.  So, if you have Irish ancestors, when you sit down to grub on those mashed potatoes, consider how you and your family have come to celebrate an American holiday this Thanksgiving.

Another featured item on the menu is the cranberry. Whether in relish, whole sauce or jellied, cranberries are  purely North American in origin. Previously, cranberries were pretty much used only around the holidays. With the many health benefits as an antioxidant and a urinary tract cleanser,  the cranberry is a staple as juice or a food source year-around.

Candied, mashed or baked or in a pie, sweet potatoes are another staple on the Thanksgiving menu.

A distant relative of the regular potato, sweet potatoes also originated in South America, but in the more tropical, frost-free regions. Columbus found the local Native Americans growing them in the Caribbean islands he discovered, so they were already spreading from their countries of origins even then.

Other items commonly found on the Thanksgiving Day menu include green beans or corn prepared in different ways. Often the corn is prepared in a casserole also featuring another New World food: diced sweet  peppers.

Of course, Thanksgiving would not be complete without the traditional pumpkin pie. Pumpkins, a member of the squash family, are also a very American food.

Now, the decorations at the Thanksgiving table might include pumpkins and various leaves in arrangements including the leaves of the sugar or red maple, various gourds, cattails.  And if you are lucky,  the arrangement might also include American Bittersweet, which is a plant so rare that it is on the endangered species list.

Another plant that you might find around this time of the year is the Thanksgiving Cactus, a relative of the Christmas Cactus that originated in Brazil.

So, there you have it!  Celebrate the food and plant contributions of the Americas this Thanksgiving, and a Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!


Spotlight Plant Of The Month For November: Cranberries

Spotlight Plant Of The Month For November: Cranberries


November is a time when outdoor gardening slows down and the attention shifts to the indoors. This is the beginning of the holiday season and the biggest food fest of the year, Thanksgiving, is the season opener.  Many of the foods that we traditionally associate with this holiday have their origins in the New World: potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, squash, corn, and pumpkin come to mind. This is the time of the year when the cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, finds a featured spot on our holiday menus. This most American of fruits is steadily gaining in popularity, and it is not unusual to see the products of the cranberry in shopping carts any time of the year. We buy bags of cranberries, we buy cranberries in cans, but most of us do not know much about cranberries or how they grow.

Cranberries are a wonderful fruit. They are a rich source of Vitamin C, and have long been used medicinally for holistic treatments. Its uses as a natural diuretic and as a urinary tract antiseptic in particular comes to mind. Cranberries are also thought to provide some protection against cancers. The cranberry is a powerful antioxidant, great for boosting the immune system during the flu season, and is a good source of many vitamins and minerals and provide dietary fiber.

Cranberries are nigh on to impossible to eat “out of hand”. Extremely sour and tart, they transform into a wonderful, sweet-tart delight when sugared and cooked. One of the first uses for this ruby red fruit was as an addition to pemmican, a type of preserved meat used by the Native Americans/American Indians, and later adopted by European settlers. Cranberries preserve very well, and were thus a valuable food source in the pre-refrigeration and processing days. Wildlife is wild for the cranberry, and if you decide to devote a patch for these native fruits, be sure to save a few for the birds and other critters to scavenge.

You can grow cranberries without a bog. The main reason we associate cranberries with bogs is that in commercial plantings, cranberry fields are flooded to assist in the harvest and to prevent damage when frost threatens. The berries float, so it is easier for the commercial harvester to comb the fields and retrieve the floating fruits. At home, a bed devoted to cranberries would be rather small, so flooding would not be required. The soil needs to be acidic and well-drained, yet moisture-retentive. Mulch or protective floating row covers can be used when frosts threaten the harvest. In a small bed, hand picking will do. Cranberries do have runners of sorts, so it would probably be a good idea to maintain them in their own contained bed.

Cranberries sugared and dried, a great treat! Cook them in a pan with sugar, listen to them pop, smell the pungent-tart aroma. Wonderful! Cranberry wine, soft, clear, jewel-like red, acid and sweet, marvelous in a homey sort of way, great with a turkey dinner! String them for the Christmas tree, place them in a wildlife wreath, these are a beautiful and colorful addition to holiday decorations. Cranberry relish, cranberry muffins and bread, wonderful, scrumptious cranberries!