In 1620, a group of religious extremists set sail from Plymouth, England, on a ship called the Mayflower. The pilgrims basically wanted to set up a theocracy in the New World, and found a couple of British investors to foot the bill. So off they went, hoping that their slice of paradise — pretty much an IRL version of The Scarlet Letter — waited for them somewhere on the Hudson River.
Long before their journey, the settlers ignored a couple of things: for example, that Native Indians already had a civilization on that land and stuff. They also didn’t know about the 1995 film adaption of Hawthorne’s novel, which is a shame, because Demi Moore is really great in the movie.
Anyway, some two months later, the 102 faithful landed near Cape Cod — markedly far from their original destination. This might or might not have made their whole land-grab scheme illegal under British law, but whatever. They drafted a social contract on ship, the Mayflower compact. The document promised that the colony’s leaders would keep shit together, and that the new settlements would protect everyone’s rights to work like slaves and pray like zealots.
A handful ventured to shore, but throughout the winter the majority stayed on board, where they “suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease.” Thankfully, the land-lubbing adventurers befriended U.S. natives, who taught them how to farm sustainably and live peaceably among them.
JK! The explorers stumbled upon American Indian graves, which they looted. But it was totally cool, because the burial sites had caches of ceremonial corn, which helped keep them alive.
This wouldn’t be the last time that Native Americans saved the pilgrims’ asses: When the rest of them left the ship in March, a Pawtuxet tribesman basically taught the inept puritans how not to die. Squanto, who bizarrely still trusted white people after they’d sold him into slavery years earlier, showed the pilgrims how to sow corn, drain maple sap, ID poisonous plants, and fish, according to historians.
Skip to November 1621. The harvest came through, so the colony’s governor called for a celebratory feast. He invited American Indian elders to join the festivities. These patriarchs reportedly brought five deer, being total badasses and all. The breaking of bread — which lasted three days — marks the first Thanksgiving.
Other than venison, nobody really knows for certain what got served — just that there probably weren’t any pies, because the Anglo immigrants had run out of sugar rations long before the repast. They also didn’t have an oven. Historians do think that shellfish and wild fowl abounded, but no word on whether turkey made the bill of fare.
In the spirit of the holiday (whatever that means), we’ve decided to highlight truly traditional American cookery with this week’s list. In no particular order …
In Wompanoag society, women would tend the fields and the hearth, while the men hunted plentiful wild fowl and hoofed forest beasts. What they would make with a day’s game: sobaheg, a rib-sticking meat stew. Grits, squash, and powdered seeds and nuts helped thicken this artichoke-laden soup.
Most Native Indian tribes prepared dough from maize, since it grew throughout the Americas. The Wompanoag did, too. At the first Thanksgiving, it is possible that this starchy staple came served with curds — a dairy product similar to modern-day cottage cheese.
8. Baked Squash and Wild Onions
Another dish, besides corn, that’s often found at American Indian harvest festivals. Many versions of roasted gourd still wind up on the Thanksgiving table — making it one of the only traditional dishes that has been preserved in popular American cookery.
7. Wild Rice and Cranberries
This tart, red fruit comes from the Northeast. A favorite way to prep it?
American Indians would blend cranberries with wild rice, sometimes adding other fruits or nuts. Variations of this dish — which reflect the plants of a region — can be found throughout the Americas.
6. Chippewa Wild Rice
This casserole boasts strips of beaten wild fowl, eggs, and chunks of smoked meat. Typically, wild boar bacon gets used in this dish, but smoked deer meat also works. Garnish with wild chives.
5. Wild Salmon Poached in Seawater
Many Native Indians in the Pacific Northwest prepped red salmon steaks in a willow basket cooked at a bare boil. They then spiced the filets with chiles and herbs.
4. Roasted Sweet Corn in Its Husk
A favorite of Southern tribes, Indian corn cobs cook slowly in their vegetal shells, preserving moisture. Said to be tastier than straight-up boiled or grilled corn, the damp charred husk perfumes the air with a sweet scent.
3. Zuni Green Chili Stew
This lamb stew simmers in a fresh, local chili puree. Juniper, green onions, and wild garlic add flavor to the broth.
2. Fry Bread
Also a palate-pleaser with Native Americans, this crispy, flattened dough has the vibe of a beignet. Fry bread gets served as a side dish, a beef-topped main, or a honey-drizzled dessert.
1. Pinon Soup
This toasted pine-nut soup with a lamb bone, wild bird, and milk broth has hearty and hot components, owing to red chile powder, coriander, mint, and plentiful scallions.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 23, 2011