Written By: Matt Wilson
Published: November 24, 2020
A Forager's Thanks giving
If asked about your favorite Thanksgiving dish, what immediately comes to mind? The common highlights might include visions of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, 'sliced' cranberries, mashed squash with marshmallows, or a relative's famous stuffing. Have you ever stopped to think about the source of these foods? How many miles have they traversed to reach your front door? What was that turkey's life like before confronting your dining table? How much land and water did it take to grow, process, and discard the imperfect green beans?
These foods are entrenched in our cultural psyche as tradition, yet not one was likely a focal point at the first harvest celebration between the Wôpanâak and pilgrims. Instead goose and duck would have been front and center, perhaps accompanied by many a roast or boiled passenger pigeon. Venison and seafood were likely on every table. Cornbread, chestnuts, and winter squash may have rounded out the meal. This menu was not created because the organizers were seeking to go carbon neutral. It was out of necessity for local ingredients. This Thanksgiving I would challenge you to think about where The Meal's ingredients come from and their journey to your table.
Examples of foods that were eaten at the first Thanksgiving, corn beans, and squash, aka the three sisters. Photo credit - https://mic-roland.com/
The point of this exercise is not despair in carbon gluttony but to inspire innovation. For me, the path to a local Thanksgiving begins with foraging in nature. Foraging has always been a way to connect to my place, to my food, and keep ingredients as local as possible. In northeastern North America the leaves have fallen, days seem to abruptly adjourn ahead of schedule, and the prospects for foraging a meal from the wilderness might appear bleak at best. Pay no heed to these signals – fall is a great time to enjoy a walk in the woods or meadow and look for dinner. And to add a little fun, let's think about how to recreate your traditional favorites with the ingredients that would have been available in 1621. Consider these opportunities:
Potatoes are a South American native and there was no butter, so how could we possibly make up for that starchy and creamy goodness? While it might not be as spudly in appearance, boiled cattail roots can take stand-in well, especially adding a little native sage for flavor. Double points if you harvest the invasive narrowleaf species for your next starchy fix.
There was no wheat in 1621 Massachusetts, but we did have some a-maize-ing alternatives. The pilgrims' flint corn harvest that year was a primary reason for celebration so cornbread stuffing can replace your family favorite. Consider a cornbread stuffing with fresh cranberries (native), ramps (native onion), and wood sorrel (a lemony delicious clover look-alike). The ramps can be hard to find in fall without their leaves, but no less delicious.
While it's not a stretch to simply replace 'butterball' with 'wild' and skip over the bird, I'm going to challenge your concept of poultry. In eastern North America we have a native mushroom that can grow to 50 pounds or more and is commonly referred to as 'chicken of the woods' or sulfur shelf [the less appetizing name]. It has the texture of chicken and it really does taste like chicken…if you close your eyes and imagine a chicken breast while eating. It is a hearty mushroom in texture with mild flavor the lends itself easily as a chicken replacement in recipes. So why not have baked chicken of the woods breaded in acorn flour with roasted cow parsnip (native and not to be confused with poison hemlock)?
Chicken of the woods
As for that dessert squash masquerading as a side-dish, alternatives are not that hard to consider. Squash are North American heirlooms along with flint corn, but that topping is where it gets sticky. Lucky for us the pecan genus is distinctly North American and shagbark hickory nuts are both plentiful and delicious in the northeast. As for that extra-sugary coating, the thought of maple syrup and hickory nuts simmered to a thick paste certainly makes my mouth water.
And the cranberries. Why not just let them be cranberries? Consider fresh cranberries and other seasonally timed natives like barberry or chokeberry in their natural un-canned state simmered with fresh persimmons (native) and a little maple syrup or honey (or honey locust seed pods) to cut that mouth-drying astringency. This one is a personal favorite every fall.
With a little advance planning you could expand the options to include pawpaw fruit leather for dessert (the fresh season ends in late October) or dried elderberries with fresh wintergreen and maple syrup in an apéritif to finish the evening. There is also a plethora of warm comforting beverages that can be made with birch, spicebush, chicory, or yarrow this time of year.
Hickory nuts in various stages of being de-shelled
The game can take shape for other holidays, seasons, and local categories. A personal favorite is eating away invasive species. Garlic mustard and plantain (not the 'nanna) simmered with a little rice vinegar is a great side while autumn olive berries are both tasty and a great source of vitamins this time of year. Another option is remembering and reviving our forgotten cultivars. Why not try celeriac and salsify for a vegan alternative to seafood chowder? Or perhaps grow Haudenosaunee skunk beans as an alternative to store-bought pintos next year?
Are all of these ideas viable options for most of us? Perhaps not, but that doesn't change the value in the exercise behind them. Internalizing thoughts about food origin and source can help us to think local and appreciate seasonality of ingredients. For me, the hunt for wild edibles takes on yet another layer by reinforcing my awe in, respect for, and thanks giving to nature.
*Please harvest responsibly and sustainably.
Another local favorite, the pawpaw!