Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Every year in the U.S.A. we celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November with a dinner consisting of a wonderful array of foods, including turkey, stuffing, corn casseroles, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie to name just a few. Oh, and of course family, friends, parades and FOOTBALL!

Now where did we get some of these traditional turkey-day foods? Of course from the English colonists at Plymouth a/k/a Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, the Native American Tribe that occupied the area now known as New England where the Pilgrims settled in December 1620. The Wampanoag were a horticultural people who supplemented their agriculture with hunting and fishing. They taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, melons, Jerusalem Artichokes, groundnut, a potato-like root, and other vegetables, in addition to teaching them hunting and fishing skills.

With few supplies, cold, sick and slowly starving to death, less than half of the original Pilgrims managed to survive the first winter of 1620-1621. However, with the help of the Wampanoag, the remaining Pilgrims had a bountiful 1621 fall harvest. Sometime between September 21 and November 11, 1621, the 52 Pilgrims shared their bounty with the 90 Wampanoag at a three-day harvest feast, now known as Thanksgiving. There were no forks at the time, but rather just knives and spoons, and plates which were usually wooden. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on the table at the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled it on their food. Pepper was something that they used for cooking but wasn't available on the table.

Items most likely on the menu included the following:

• CORNBREAD: admired by both the English and Native Americans
• ENGLISH CHEESE PIE: cheese was important to the English
• VENISON: five deer were brought by the Native Americans
• DUCKS & GEESE: gathered by the English
• WILD TURKEY: Native Americans and English alike enjoyed this meal
• STUFFING: with herbs, onions and/or oats
• GARLIC AND ONIONS: staples of the diet
• PUMPKIN PUDDING: there wasn't pumpkin pie at the time
• INDIAN PUDDING: can be served as a warm or cold dessert

In September and October 1621, a variety of both dried and fresh vegetables were available to the Pilgrims. The produce from their house-gardens were likely to have a number of herbs which included wild onions, wild garlic, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, lettuce, carrots, radishes, currants, liverwort, watercress, parsnips, collards, turnips, spinach, cabbages, parsley, marjoram, sage, rosemary and thyme. Also it is thought that dried cultivated beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as native pumpkins, grapes, nuts and cranberries which were a favorite of the Wampanoag.

The following is a more detailed list of foods that were available to the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag for their 1621 feast:

• FISH: cod, bass, herring, shad, bluefish, and lots of eel.
• SEAFOOD: clams, lobsters, mussels, and very small quantities of oysters
• BIRDS: wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, and other miscellaneous waterfowl; they were also known to have occasionally eaten eagles (which "tasted like mutton" according to Winslow in 1623.)
• OTHER MEAT: venison (deer), possibly some salt pork or chicken.
• GRAIN: wheat flour, Indian corn and corn meal; barley (mainly for beer-making).
• FRUITS: raspberries, strawberries, grapes, plums, cherries, blueberries, gooseberries (these would have been dried, as none would have been in season).
• VEGETABLES: small quantity of peas, squashes (including pumpkins), beans
• NUTS: walnuts, chestnuts, acorns, hickory nuts, ground nuts
• HERBS and SEASONINGS: wild onions and garlic, leeks, strawberry leaves, currants, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brooklime, liverwort, watercress, and flax; from England they brought seeds and probably planted radishes, lettuce, carrots, onions, and cabbage. Salt was available on the table, but pepper was used only during cooking. Olive oil in small quantities may have been brought over, although the Pilgrims had to sell most of their oil and butter before sailing, in order to stay on budget.
• OTHER: maple syrup, honey; small quantities of butter, Holland cheese, and eggs.

Furthermore, it is thought that the Pilgrims used many spices, some of which they brought over to the New World, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, which was used in sauces for meats. In the seventeenth century, cooks did not use proportions or talk about teaspoons and tablespoons, but rather they just improvised. Also they dried Indian corn, ham, fish, and herbs.

According to some food historians, they can only guess as to what favorite herb seeds and cuttings were brought from the English gardens. Although medicinal herbs would have been a priority, basic culinary herbs in use at the time by English "goodwives" included mint, sage, parsley, thyme, marjoram, tansy, pennyroyal, rosemary and chamomile. Rooted cuttings were most likely stuck into root vegetables to help them survive the 66-day trip.

The local Native Americans taught the Pilgrims about native vegetables and herbs including many different kinds of nuts, berries, greens, and mushrooms which they gathered from the woods. Along with the many herbs especially valuable for medicinal uses, the settlers also learned to use strawberry and blackberry leaves, sassafras root, bee balm, and birch bark for teas.

The following quotes about the gathering of herbs and vegetables by the Wampanoag are from website http://plymoutharch.tripod.com/id74.html:

SEQUAN and AUKEETEAMITCH (March to May) Spring:
Spring greens are probably one of the most important food source used by the Natives at this time of the year. These supplement the dwindling supplies of corn and provide vitamins lacking during the winter. Roots and tubers of plants such as Bulrush, Cattail, Jerusalem Artichoke and Groundnuts are available year round, but were added to soups in the spring. Other plants and plant parts such as Cattail shoots, Fiddlehead Ferns, Milkweed and Poke shoots are only available in the spring, as some of these plants become poisonous later in their growth cycle.

The sprouts from other plants like sumac, raspberry were. . . . Wild onions and garlic would begin to be used in the late spring into summer. Berries would begin to be used in May, towards the middle to the end of the month. Raspberries and Strawberries should begin to fruit and these can be dried or used fresh.

NEEPUN or QUASQUSQUAN (June to August) Summer:
Corn, which Winslow noted was "...very deare to them...” in July, was probably used up around this time, and the beans and squash which may have been present in early spring were definitely gone by summer. Green beans and summer squash do begin to ripen and are collected in July and August. Green corn (also known as corn in the milk) is available in August, which, among the Iroquois, is considered a time of celebration. It is not known if the Wampanoag celebrated the ripening of the corn with Green Corn Festivals the way the Iroquois did, or if they only celebrated the harvest later in the year.

Bulrush and cattail roots and bulrush shoots can still be collected during the summer, and bulrush seeds are ready to be harvested, dried and ground into flour in August and September. Cattail pollen can be collected in late July and can be eaten raw, cooked in soup, or roasted and the seeds can be ground into flour. Onion and garlic can be used, the onion especially with fish. Purslane and goosefoot (Chenopodium) can also be put into soups or more correctly boiled separately and eaten throughout the summer. Beach plums and blueberries ripen in July and can be harvested and dried at this time, while choke cherries ripen in August and can also be dried.

TAQUONCK (September to November) Fall:
In the Fall, subsistence focused on products from the garden and the fall deer hunt. The horticulture which had been practice in southeastern Massachusetts from at least 1100 A.D (900 years ago) provided the people with much of their food in the fall and especially the winter. Corn, which began to be harvested in its milk stage in August, matured in late September and was harvested in October after the plants had died. The corn was thoroughly dried, and some of it was placed in underground storage pits for the winter. Beans were also dried on the vine and stored for the winter, whereas squash may have been sliced in rings or spiral sliced and dried in the sun to use in winter. Small dark green watermelons which are grown in the garden are harvested and eaten as they become ripe. Finally, sunflowers, grown on the edges of the gardens, are harvested now and boiled to remove their oil, which is saved to be used later (See Oils and Grease below).

Certain wild plant species are harvested during the fall as well. Prominent among these are various types of nuts, such as hazel, hickory, beech, butternut, chestnuts and white oak acorns. Some years, more nuts would be harvested than in other years, depending on how well the corn crop had done that year (Williams 1643: 168). The final berries of the season, cranberries and grapes were harvested at this time and eaten fresh or dried.

PAPONE (December to February) Winter:
Winter subsistence continued in much the same way that the fall did. Hunting and fresh water fishing provided meat for the family, while their vegetable needs were the crops which had been dried and stored from the previous years planting season. During the late winter into very early spring, a community may be faced with dwindling food supplies. This would be especially if it was a particularly hard and long winter Corn, beans and squash crops were probably initially cultivated in this area as a way of supplementing the winter food supplies with a reliable and predictable food source. With the approach of spring, families would again begin to look for the spring greens and returning fish as welcome changes from the winter diet, and the cycle begins anew.

Although today our Thanksgiving celebration occurs about two months later in the year than the Pilgrims' celebration, we still season our dishes with many of the same herbs they used, especially sage, thyme and rosemary. These are all woody perennials which, in late November, are not yet completely dormant in the northern gardens of the U.S.A. However, in south Texas this is when they thrive, and come summer the sage and thyme will die back due to our intense heat and humidity. The rosemary can and does thrive year round here in south Texas providing it has excellent drainage.

In addition to adding sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, Mexican Mint Marigold (sometimes referred to as Texas Tarragon and is a replacement for French Tarragon), and other herbs to turkey dressing, the leaves can be placed in the cavity of the Thanksgiving turkey. And for a great presentation, slide your hands between the turkey breast meat and skin to loosen the skin. Rub butter or margarine on the breast meat and arrange the leaves under the skin. Pat the skin down and roast, and when finished, the leaves will show through the browned skin.

So go ahead and be creative in the kitchen this Thanksgiving by learning to use fresh herbs which add wonderful flavors to many dishes. When you add fresh herbs, you can decrease your intake of salt and oils without losing flavor. Here are some suggestions for using culinary herbs in your cooking.

Herbs and Foods:
• Basil - pesto, tomato sauce, tomato soup, tomato juice, potato dishes, prawns, meat, poultry, pasta, rice, egg dishes, substituting for lettuce on sandwiches.
• Bay - soups, stews, casseroles, meat and poultry marinades, stocks.
• Chili - meat, poultry, shellfish, tomato dishes, curries.
• Chives - salads, poultry, soups, cheese dishes, egg dishes, mayonnaise, vinaigrettes.
• Coriander/Cilantro - Asian dishes, stir fries, curries, soups, salads, seafood.
• Dill - salads, sauces, fish, salad, sour cream, cheese and potato dishes.
• Fennel - stuffings, sauces, seafood, eating as a vegetable.
• Garlic - soups, sauces, pasta, meat, poultry, shellfish, pesto, salad dressings, and bread.
• Ginger - cakes, biscuits, Asian dishes.
• Lemongrass - Asian dishes, stir fries, curries, seafood, soups, rice, tea.
• Marjoram - meat, fish, egg dishes, cheese dishes, pizza.
• Mint - drinks, confectionary, meat, poultry, yoghurt, desserts, sauces, vegetable dishes.
• Oregano - cheese dishes, egg dishes, tomato sauce, pizza, meat, stuffing, bread, pasta.
• Parsley - pesto, egg dishes, pasta, rice dishes, salads, butter, sauces, seafood, vegetable dishes.
• Rosemary - fish, poultry, meat, bread, sauces, potatoes, soups.
• Sage - stuffings, tomato dishes, cheese dishes.
• Tarragon - salad dressing, fish, poultry, meat, egg dishes.
• Thyme - chowders, bread, poultry, soups, stock, stews, stuffings, butter, cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar.

Herb Combinations:
• Basil - with chives, chili, garlic, oregano.
• Bay - with parsley, thyme, garlic, oregano, marjoram.
• Chili - with coriander, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, mint, oregano.
• Chives - with basil, garlic, tarragon.
• Dill - with chives, garlic, parsley, tarragon.
• Garlic - with basil, rosemary, sage, fennel, chili, coriander.
• Oregano - with basil, parsley, chives, thyme, bay, chili.
• Sage - with rosemary, garlic, marjoram.
• Thyme - with bay, parsley, garlic, rosemary.

NOTE: When substituting fresh herbs for a recipe which calls for dried herbs, triple the amount with fresh herbs. For instance if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of a dried herbs, then use 3 tablespoons of the fresh herb. Also if using dried herbs, keep them in a cool, dry area, away from sunshine and keep them no longer than six months. And remember throw out that old jar of sage because it can and does go rancid after more than a year.

Here is my own stuffing recipe using fresh herbs that everyone seems to love.


1 16-ounce package corn bread stuffing or make your own corn bread
1 ½ to 2 cups canned chicken broth
14 ounces sausage of your choice
8 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups chopped sweet yellow onion
¾ cup chopped celery (leaves too)
¾ cup chopped leeks (white part only)
¾ cup chopped fennel bulb (can add a few green leaves)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
¾ cup nuts of your choice or can add and/or substitute with chopped water chestnuts
½ cup raisins or dried currants or dried cranberries
Salt and Pepper
2 large eggs beaten

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter 13 x 9 x 2 inch glass baking dish. Mix corn bread stuffing and chicken broth in a large bowl. Set aside. In a large heavy skillet brown sausage until cooked. Drain and transfer sausage to the bowl with the stuffing. Drain off fat in skillet. Melt the butter in the same skillet over medium heat. Add onion, celery, leeks, fennel and garlic to skillet and cook just until tender. Transfer to bowl with the stuffing. Mix in nuts and fruit and season mixture with salt and pepper. Then add beaten eggs and mix. Be sure not to have the mixture to hot when you add eggs or the eggs will cook. Transfer beaten mixture to the baking dish. Cover dish and bake about 45 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes or until the top is golden and crisp.

According to Deni Bown, author of The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses the definition of an herb (either the French pronunciation of 'erb or the English pronunciation of herb with the hard H is correct) is:

“The term ‘herb’ also has more than one definition. Botanists describe an herb as a small, seed-bearing plant with fleshly, rather than woody, parts (from which we get the term ‘herbaceous’). In this book, it refers to a far wider range of plants. In addition to herbaceous perennials, herbs include trees, shrubs, annuals, vines, and more primitive plants, such as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi. They are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes).”

Some information was obtained from the following websites:






Compiled and submitted by:
Linda Turner Collins
Rockport, Texas
October 20, 2006

1 comment:

Herbal Rose said...

Great post, Linda, thanks.