We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. It was told to us countless times in grade school as we sat at our desks and drew hand turkeys with crayons, and topped them with little pilgrim hats and feathers. However, what's more interesting than Thanksgiving’s sordid past is the history surrounding the dishes that make up our November feast. This post-harvest celebration is stuffed with more traditions than the turkey itself. Did you ever stop to ask yourself where all these delectable dishes came from, aside from the oven? Have you pondered the origin of your pumpkin pie as you piled it high with whipped cream? Well, even if you didn’t you’re going to know by the end of this article. Come the holiday you can be the savviest person at the table as you drizzle information over everyone’s meal in lieu of gravy. Just kidding, don’t skip the gravy.
These Turkeys Were Made for Walking
If we are going to expound upon the origins of some of Thanksgivings most popular dishes we may as well start with the main course; the turkey. Brined, fried, baked, or tofu, just about everyone has this 11 million year old bird at the center of their Thanksgiving table. It is Turkey Day after all. But, why is it the main course you ask? The answer is simpler than you would expect. Essentially it bakes down to convenience. Wild turkeys are native to North America. When Europeans first made contact with the Americas it is estimated that some 10 million turkeys were roaming the land. As settlers began raising their own livestock, cows and goats were kept for their milk and not often eaten. Chickens were kept for their eggs and also not often eaten. Pigs were the primary meat source of colonial Americans but if you’re throwing a party you don’t want to eat what you already eat on a regular basis. Enter the turkey, delicious and not really good for much else than eating, and one bird could easily feed an entire family.
In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. By this time novelized images of the turkey as the main course had spread nationwide. The toughest part of meeting the growing demand for turkeys on this day was getting the turkeys to the people. Before refrigerated trains and trucks the only way to get them there was to take them for a walk. A very slow, long walk over several hundred miles. Vermont turkeys were marched to Boston, Kentucky and Tennessee turkeys were marked to Richmond. Turkeys dont really have a driving sense of urgency by nature, or maybe they knew they were on their death march, whatever the case, the average pace of a turkey walk was about one mile per hour. To make matters worse turkeys aren't very bright. As the sun sets, they will roost for the night in bushes and trees. The problem with this is that often times the turkeys would confuse an overcast sky, or especially shady woods with night fall and would prematurely settle down to roost. Once they decided they were done for the day “nothing would induce them to continue the march to the slaughtering pens.” Drovers would often travel miles out of their way to avoid densely shaded woods in hopes of keeping their turkeys moving. “Turkey Trots”, as they were called in Texas, remained the norm up until the 1930’s when commercialized farming and more efficient means of transportation arose.
Pumpion to Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkins have been cultivated in Central America since 5500 BC. The first known mention of Pumpkins in Europe dates back to 1536. The squash quickly took its place in English baking culture, but you're not very likely to find the custard based pumpkin pie we serve at Thanksgiving on an English dinner table. Pumpion pie, was made with pumpkins and apples, baked with rosemary, thyme, marjoram ( a type of mint), cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Early colonists brought pumpkins back with them on the Mayflower, but a lack of ovens and flower meant that it would still be some time until pumpkin pie as we know it became a popular dish. In 1796 American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, was published. It was the first cookbook to be published here and it contains two recipes for pumpkin pie, one very similar to what we serve up today.
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Tex or Mex? How did it get here?
Trying to glean the origins of one of America’s favorite dishes mostly felt like swimming circles in a bowl of spices, meat, tomatoes, and obscure history. Though written record of the phrase “chile con carne” doesn't actually crop up until the early 1800’s, it is popularly believed that chili has been served in what is now Texas for a few hundred years before that time. But where did it come from? One thing we can be sure of is that it didn't come from Mexico. In the search for chili’s origins an account from a Spanish Conquistador in 1568 was suspected to be a potential source of chili. He wrote that unlucky Spaniards who were caught by the Aztecs ended up sacrificed, butchered and stewed along with tomatoes and chilies. It is unlikely however, that this dish resembles what we know as chili.
We do know that chili is not Tex-Mex, it's mostly just Tex and, actually, not at all Mex.
Most of us here in the North East think of chili as a cold weather dish, warm and spicy, the perfect pick me up for our winter blues; the weather turns and one of the first things we do is make an enormous pot of chili which we freeze and use to sustain ourselves for much of the cold season. However, the common consensus is that the foundations for chili as we know it were brought over from The Canary Islands, a subtropical chain of islands that rarely sees temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Under the control of Spain in the 1700’s, people of the Canary Islands were recruited to move to the part of New Spain that is now San Antonio, Texas bringing this spicy, cumin filled dish with them.
Divine Intervention? Or Chili Queens?
As far as written documentation of chili goes, the most reliable accounts of chili being served speaks of the “Chili Queens” of the Military Plaza Mercado. They made their stew at home and sold it out of colorful carts to everyone from soldiers to tourists in the 1800’s. They became a staple of the Alamo City. It was considered the end of an era when most of the “Chili Queens” were put out of business in 1937 due to their inability to keep up with new sanitary standards enforced in restaurants.