Homeyer: The Thanksgiving Story

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(HOST) In anticipation of the Annual National Day of Listening this Friday, commentator Henry Homeyer observes that our Thanksgiving dinner is based on a story – in which many details are probably not accurate.

(HOMEYER) I love stories, and recognize that some of the tales I learned in grade school are not history at all, but just good stories that’ve been passed along for hundreds of years.

For example, I’m more than a little skeptical about the Thanksgiving story. Back in the 1950’s, we learned about pilgrims and Indians and the great feast they shared together. They ate turkey and venison and the fruits of the harvest. We learned how to make pilgrim’s black hats out of construction paper, and to draw turkeys – the center of our modern feast.

But wild turkeys are so wily that even with a blunderbuss, it’s not likely that many were shot and eaten. And when was that first harvest feast, anyway?  I think the Canadians, who celebrate their Thanksgiving in October, probably are closer to the real date. I mean even in Plymouth, fresh food from the garden is largely gone by late November.

But, be that as it may, I like to serve my family and friends food from my garden on Thanksgiving. Like most Americans, I serve potatoes, though the pilgrims didn’t have any – potatoes weren’t really introduced to the colonies until 1719, and certainly weren’t grown in Plymouth those first years.

Then there are the cranberries we all cherish. Yes, cranberries were probably growing wild near Plymouth. I recently picked some wild ones which made me appreciate how easy we have it now – lots of plump cranberries available for picking – in bags at the store. It took me 40 minutes to pick 20 ounces of wild berries.

Commercial cranberry fields are flooded, the berries float, and they’re skimmed off mechanically. But Pilgrims weren’t able to do that. And the cranberry sauce we buy in a can is full of sugar – which was a luxury back then, if even available. So I wonder how much cranberry sauce – if any – was served that first Thanksgiving.

My garden is still offering a few fresh vegetables for my Thanksgiving feast: kale and Brussels sprouts chief among them. Both are improved in flavor by frost, so they’re at their peak now. My broccoli is still producing little side shoots, but as the days get shorter the plants become less and less productive. The leaves are tasty, though most gardeners don’t bother eating them. I suspect the pilgrims would have eaten the leaves, if they had broccoli, and it’s certain that they ate the leaves of some wild plants, including a few we call weeds.

Pumpkins and winter squashes keep well and are part of the traditional Thanksgiving feast. My favorite winter squash is the butternut, a medium-sized tan squash with a bulbous end. It keeps well for many months if stored in a cool dry location. An elderly Vermonter once told me to store my squash upstairs under the bed of an unheated room. I’ve been doing that for years – it really works.

As the days get shorter and the nights colder I fight the urge to hibernate the way our bears and woodchucks do. Thanksgiving is always a bright spot for me, and I hope it is for you, too. And in 200 years, maybe everyone will be eating broccoli – leaves and all – as a traditional part of the feast.

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