The humble potato has had quite a history, but even I remember older relatives warning me never to eat a green potato (“it’s been kissed by the moon,” I was told): the Pilgrim’s wariness about poisoning still lingers in our cultural psyche.
Cranberries The tart/sweet cranberry sauce so revered at Thanksgiving dinners is another native American recipe our Pilgrim forebears came to love. Although cranberries grow in cool boglands along the northern half of the globe, their large-scale production and marketing is distinctly associated with the South Coast, especially Plymouth County. Our early settlers added them to puddings and breads; our native American hosts blended them into “pemmican,” the local version of beef jerky. Like so many New World foods, cranberries were soon recognized for their healthful benefits—very high in Vitamin C, a natural antioxidant, and a sure-fire home cure for urinary-tract or gum infections. Since the late 1800s, cranberries became one of the first agricultural products to be marketed cooperatively nationwide, with A.D. Makepeace of “Ocean Spray” fame becoming the world’s largest producers of commercial cranberry products—juices, sauces and Craisins. Meanwhile, us South Coasters serve cranberry sauce year-‘round, whenever we eat poultry, not just turkey at Thanksgiving. There’s nothing like a roast chicken/turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce slathered on it, no matter the season.
early settlers quickly adopted it as an alternative to imported sugar (or molasses, which was a by-product of the rum/sugar-cane slave trade in the West Indies). Maple syrup is distinctly a New England/ Canadian product and is a staple sweetener in many recipes , as well as a topping for pancakes, jonny cakes, waffles or baked hams/sweet potatoes. And you can’t find “maple walnut” ice cream anywhere but on the South Coast. Like cranberries, maple syrup is a distinctly regional product that has been adopted nationwide for “traditional” dinners.
Gobble, gobble We had a long-standing joke in my family that you never ate a particular auntie’s “purple turkeys” come holiday time. Not only did she consistently undercook them, but she added enough Bell’s Seasoning to her equally-undercooked Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing to give a whale heartburn. But, family lore aside, turkey is the quintessential Thanksgiving centerpiece. Another “New World” species, turkeys are probably the ugliest and dumbest birds in the world, next to emus. Benjamin Franklin wasted a lot of time and energy trying to have the American wild turkey named the national bird, as opposed to the bald eagle. But the early settlers were happy to serve turkeys instead of their traditional goose or swan at holiday time, so it’s turkey we eat at Thanksgiving, whether your auntie cooked it or not. So, this year, when you gather around winter dinners with family and friends, give thanks for the hospitality of the native Americans who helped the South Coast settlers survive almost 400 years ago. Their generosity has helped feed the world.
We had a longstanding joke in my family that you never ate a particular auntie’s “purple turkeys” come holiday time.
Maple syrup Native Americans had long been harvesting the sap of sugar maple trees as a sweetener and energy-source long before the Pilgrims arrived on our shores. The
“Grist for the mill”
New Bedford’s Whaling Museum sits atop Johnny Cake Hill, so-named for the fried cornmeal pancakes that have been a South Coast staple since preColonial days. Johnny (or jonny) cakes, were originally called “journey” cakes, a take-along snack for a day’s journey— indeed, they were an icon on local inns and tavern signs in the early 1800s. Apparently, the distinctive New England accent was strong enough even back then that the “r” got dropped and they became known as jonny cakes. But even now along the South Coast, especially in Rhode Island, jonny cakes with maple syrup and ham is a traditional Sunday breakfast, as well as a favorite dish at Thanksgiving dinners. Its early popularity as a quick and inexpensive food spread across the globe. It was one of the main foods served to Confederate troops during the Civil War, and is enjoyed as far away as Australia.
Brown Bread A few years ago on a Saturday morning, a Southern-grown friend called and asked if she could pick anything up for me at Stop&Shop before she came over for coffee…“Yeah—get me a large can of B&M baked beans and some brown bread.” Okay—she knew where the baked beans were, but didn’t know if the bakery carried brown bread. “Oh, no,” I assured her. “It’s in the cans next to the beans.” Dead silence, then finally, she said, “Y’all eat bread here out of cans?” New England brown bread, with or without raisins, is a cornmeal-and-molasses based steamed quick bread, and a classic Saturday night food throughout the South Coast, as well as a frequent ingredient of Thanksgiving dinners. I like it warm with cream cheese, but my Southern friend won’t touch it. (Then again, I won’t eat grits, so there you go.)
The South Coast Insider / February 2010