Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
In November, I find myself reflecting on the past growing season’s successes, trials, and tribulations. I love looking into my pantry and cupboards at potatoes, squashes, pickles, and jams that I can continue to enjoy as winter sets in. There’s no more gardening left to be done; cooking and eating the crops are all that remain. For me, one of the most fun parts of Thanksgiving is featuring vegetables from my garden, my family’s garden, and local farms in the dishes that I make. It makes the dishes extra special and personal. This year, I’m going to make a pumpkin pie using an edible pumpkin from my parents’ garden, and roasted local Brussels sprouts with bacon from my family’s pigs and maple syrup given to me by a local producer. Farmers in our region work hard to provide us with an abundance of local products that we can enjoy all year round, and I am truly appreciative for what they do.
Even when we “eat local” by buying from our farming neighbors, many of our modern crops and livestock have rich global histories. For example, the star of the Thanksgiving dinner plate, the domesticated turkey, originated from Mexico. Archaeologists and historians believe that wild turkeys were domesticated by Aztecs to use for their meat and feathers, and were fed corn.
Many crops were also domesticated in Mexico, which is considered one of the major centers of origin for many of the foods that we eat. Corn was domesticated there thousands of years ago from its wild ancestor teosinte, a grass bearing far fewer seeds than its much taller, heavy bearing modern descendent. Beans and squash, often grown together with corn in the “milpa” or “three sisters” tradition, also originated in Mexico. The knowledge and practice of this planting arrangement, with corn in the center, pole beans climbing up the stalk, and squash growing along the ground underneath, was passed amongst native peoples in North America. Many different indigenous groups developed their own crop varieties and planting practices for these crops, which were important parts of their diets.
Across the ocean, Brussels sprouts descended from wild cabbage ancestors from Europe. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale are all very closely related and likely arose from the same wild ancestors in the Mediterranean region. As its name implies, it is assumed that Brussels sprouts came from Belgium, although this fact seems to be up for debate. These vegetables were then transported to North America by Europeans. Brussels sprouts have experienced a real rise in popularity these days. Personally, I like to roast them with onions (likely originating from what is now Iran), along with the bacon and maple syrup.
Cranberries are a newcomer when it comes to modern day agriculture, and have only been grown commercially at a large scale since the 1800’s. They are one of few commercial crops native to the Northeastern U.S. Wild cranberries can be found in acidic soils here in bogs and other wet areas. There are two species of cranberry, and the one producing larger fruit is what you will see in the grocery store. In my cranberry sauce, I like to add orange and cardamom, both originating in Southeast Asia.
This week, I wish you the best of luck in your cooking endeavors, and I hope that you have a wonderful feast in the company of family and friends on Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving!
Elisabeth Hodgdon is the regional vegetable specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension – Clinton County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-561-7450.