American Thanksgiving was celebrated last Thursday and as a special treat for us northerners, Chef Nick Scime and his wife Caroline shared this tradition at our last night Go Cooking session. Caroline is now a Canadian citizen but grew up in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Florida, so the evening was dedicated to her memories of this important American holiday.
I must admit, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for my American friends when they talk about their Thanksgiving. First of all, it comes at a rather bleak time of year — the colorful leaves are off the trees and it’s nipping at the heels of the Christmas festivities. And on a Thursday, for heaven’s sake — which makes a long weekend awkward. And now there is the “competitive shopping” frenzy of Black Friday to prepare for, which I’m sure lots of people enjoy, but which is a celebration of conspicuous consumption that makes me feel quite exhausted just to watch on TV.
Anyway, I tried to trace the origins of the holiday in the United States myself but ended up with a wild mixture of conflicting accounts. My original faulty concept was that the event had something to do with Puritans in strange, outlandish hats accepting wild turkeys from feather-bedecked native Americans. All wrong, of course. The most widely accepted story is of the Pilgrims at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, a celebration that took place in 1621 — a harvest feast after a successful growing period. The so-called “Indians” come into the picture because there was a native American who served as an interpreter (He had been to England and had learned English). He also taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn. I should mention that the “strange hats” belonged to the Puritans, not to the Pilgrims. The Puritans established their own colony near Boston and the difference between the two groups is that the Puritans wished to stay in the Anglican church and reform it; the Pilgrims wanted complete separation. At the same time, I was also somewhat surprised to discover that the origins of our own Thanksgiving celebration in October are even more confusing. There is something about Martin Frobisher giving thanks that his men did not freeze to death in the Arctic. Suffice it to say, our Thanksgiving is primarily a harvest festival with the actual date set as late as 1957.
Despite the different origins of the holiday, the food that is consumed on Thanksgiving is remarkably similar in both countries: roast turkey as the centrepiece, stuffing with sage, pumpkin pie, corn, yams or sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy and cranberry sauce all figure prominently. Essentially, these are foods native to the new world.
I did find an account the origins of the feast by one William Bradford a participant from “Of Plymouth Plantation” who wrote:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good stores of which every family had their portion All the summer there was no want and now began to come in store of fowl as winter approached of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meat a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”
Chef Nick and Caroline produced a sumptuous feast for our Go Cooking audience, traditional in spirit, but with a few twists to give the meal a bright, new dimension. For instance, the appetizer, an enormous stuffed mushroom, contained mint in the stuffing, an unusual herb that added a piquant spiciness to the flavour. Instead of trying to share a whole bird among twenty people (There are never enough legs, right?), Nick cooked a stuffed, rolled up turkey breast and surprised me by showing a way to roll the breast so that it stayed together to be sliced into medallions. I definitely am going to try his method. And for dessert, we left aside the pumpkin pie, for some easy-to-make chocolate and raspberry roll-ups that disappeared off the plates very swiftly.
Anyway, our new Go Cooking sessions are out this morning and I’m very happy to see that Chef Nick and Caroline will be educating us further with three hands-on learning sessions at the end of January. Our lineup is amazing this winter so check it out right now, before everything gets fully booked.