The original Thanksgiving was not a banquet of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie with whipped cream and…and…and whatever else you can cram down your gullet before collapsing into the recliner in a food coma. It was a three-day harvest celebration (and not repeated for many years), attended by the early American settlers as well as the natives who initially welcomed them and helped them adapt to and survive in a harsh and unfamiliar landscape.
They ate what was available. There may have been wild turkey, or it may have been wild ducks or geese as well – game that was in the area. Fish and shellfish native to the nearby rivers, streams, and the sea would also have been served. Potatoes were unknown to the settlers at that point in time (though potatoes are native to South America, they didn’t make an appearance in North America until some time in the 19th century), but onions, parsnips, and turnips would have been available. Cranberries are native to New England and Canada, but sugar was a scarce commodity and cranberries are so tart as to be nearly inedible without it, so cranberry sauce was unlikely to have been present at that feast – dried fruit such as blueberries (also native to the area) would far more likely have been served. Squash and pumpkins were abundant, but either eaten strictly as vegetables or hollowed out and filled with custard ingredients, then roasted in a fire pit. Of course, the two other members of the Three Sisters, beans and corn, would have been present as well, along with nuts and seeds native to the area. Wild mushrooms surely would have been included, as well.
So, in light of all of this information…what does Thanksgiving mean to you now? Suddenly that big turkey in the center of the table doesn’t seem quite so important to the whole concept of Thanksgiving, does it?
If you want to celebrate the original meaning of Thanksgiving – gratitude for a bountiful harvest – then start by finding out what is harvested seasonally in your area. Some farmers’ markets are open well into the Fall, so that should give you a good idea of what to start with when planning your feast. It will probably look a lot like that original Thanksgiving feast did – only you’ve got a host of modern kitchen implements at your disposal as well as access to a larger selection of foods, so you have many more choices than those early settlers did as to what you do with all those ingredients. You’re only limited by your imagination.
To get you started brainstorming, here are a few recipes that would be right at home on the vegetarian Thanksgiving table, whether as a side dish or the main course:
Colorful Quinoa Salad
Cretan Braised Pulses
Greek Scalloped Potatoes
Polenta with Mushroom-Tomato Sauce and Gorgonzola
Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
Spicy Pumpkin-Currant Bread with Pepita Butter
Spicy Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Soup with Parmesan Croutons and Pillow Biscuits