The original Thanksgiving wasn't exactly the Pilgrim and Indian love fest we collectively misremember. But despite growing recognition of the degree to which the Thanksgiving story has been rewritten, the same analysis has not been widely applied to the holiday's traditional foods. We still tend to cook the same dishes each year, dictated more by habit than history. The original Thanksgiving did not include turkey, pumpkin pie, and other contemporary Thanksgiving staples, like women, children, and football. But it did, according to historians, include a lot of seafood, thanks to the event's location on the Massachusetts coast.
Likely foods included cod, oysters, and other shellfish, as well as venison. The first historical mention of turkeys at Thanksgiving was in an 1827 novel, Northwood, by Sarah Josepha Hale. The use of turkeys at Thanksgiving really took off in 1947, when the National Turkey Federation began presenting turkeys to American presidents in advance of every Thanksgiving. More recently, Tofurkey has met commercial success by allowing vegetarians and vegans to join in the modern ritual of using the turkey to celebrate what is sometimes referred to as "Genocide Appreciation Day."
One part of the Thanksgiving story that's true is that afterward the Indians did indeed help the Pilgrims through the winter, a fact that the Wampanoag tribe almost immediately came to regret. During the winter that followed the first Thanksgiving, the Indians so vastly outnumbered the Pilgrims that they could easily have wiped them out, forever changing the official start of the Christmas shopping season.
Instead, just two years later, a Pilgrim preacher named Mather the Elder was able to thank God for smallpox, which had by that point killed many Wampanoag. A few years later, many of the remaining Wampanoag died in King Philip's War, which by today's standards would be considered more of a massacre.
Compared to the holiday's historical reality, looking at the actual food that was served at Thanksgiving is much less depressing to think about. While there was no pie, the Pilgrims might have contributed stewed pumpkin, along with boiled bread (dumplings) and cheese curd fritters. And there might have been sobaheg, a Wampanoag recipe still being made today by tribal members.
Sobaheg includes a trio of vegetables that are commonly associated with Native American farmers: corn, beans, and squash — aka the Three Sisters. Sobaheg also contains some kind of meat, like venison, or even turkey.
Indeed, centuries before European contact, Native Americans of the region had already domesticated turkeys. It just so happened, according to historians, that turkey wasn't served during the original three-day bash. But if the historians are wrong and some turkey had somehow snuck its way onto the original Thanksgiving table, it could very well have been via the sobaheg.
Some sobaheg recipes include clam juice, which I find exciting. Clam juice is like a simple version of oyster sauce, which has become indispensable in my kitchen. Both clam juice and oyster sauce contain mollusk extracts, and both are umami donors. The simple fact that clam juice is more authentic to Thanksgiving than turkey is all the reminder we need that there is more to the Thanksgiving picture than what we've been fed.
Ingredients (for a medium pot):
1 cup dry beans
2 cups hominy corn (dried, canned, or frozen); some recipes use corn grits
1-2 pounds turkey, white or dark meat
A pound of winter squash, trimmed and cubed
Two teaspoons each garlic and onion powder
An 8-oz. bottle of clam juice
Salt or soy sauce to taste
Optional: 1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds, pounded to a coarse flour or pulverized in a coffee grinder. This adds a unique flavor that some might find a little too unique.
There is a lot of leeway in terms of how mushy you like your corn, beans, and squash. I like the beans soft but the squash and corn a bit more toothy. Adjust your procedure according to your own taste.
Cook the beans in water until they're nearly tender. If you're using dried hominy corn — as opposed to canned or frozen — it should be cooked with the beans. While the beans are cooking, roast your turkey at 250 degrees until it's browned. Turn the oven off and let the turkey slowly cool.
When the beans are soft, change the water, and set cooking on medium. If using frozen hominy, add it now.
Add onion and garlic powders. When the turkey is cool enough to work with, pull it into pieces and add them to the pot. Let it simmer. If using canned hominy, add it now. About an hour before serving time, add the squash chunks. Adjust seasonings with salt or chicken bouillon. Add sunflower-seed flour, if using it, and stir it in.
It's a simple yet texturally diverse pot of stew, full of complementary flavors. And if you want to take it even further, a dollop of cranberry sauce adds a refreshing zing — even if there weren't cranberries at the original Thanksgiving.