Thanksgiving, turkeys and memories of harvest times long gone
By Christina Stock
The unofficial holiday season kicks off in the U.S. with preparations for this unique holiday, called Thanksgiving. Nobody else in the world celebrates this day as Americans do: With food and football.
Nobody in Europe really knew about the bounty of diverse food of the Americas that would change the culinary world as they knew it. Today, many have the misconception that tomatoes are native to Italy while their origin is in the Americas. It is hard to imagine that at one time there were no tomato-based pasta sauces. Not to mention, no fries, chips, mashed or otherwise prepared potatoes. One of the vegetables loved by adults and even the most finicky kids — maize/corn — made its way onto dinner tables throughout the world from the Americas.
Then, there is the turkey. That bird was actually known in England after Conquistadors brought the Mexican domesticated version of the bird to the court in Spain. From there, some of the birds were sent to England. According to the information about the Mayflower — which is preserved in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with The Mayflower Society, at its museum — the famous ship and its passengers may have had English turkeys on board on their trip across the Atlantic in December 1620.
Unfortunately, the pilgrims didn’t leave any documentation behind about what they brought with them or what livestock was brought on board, but a list written by Captain John Smith — yes, the one who is connected to Pocahontas — exists, which Lea Sinclair Filson from The Mayflower Society emailed to the Daily Record. In it, she writes that Smith’s recommendations for the passengers were vast. Smith included tools, household items, arms — including swords and gun powder — bedding, clothing and a list of the food and drinks they should bring on board.
Skipping forward to the founding of the U.S. and the Revolutionary War: The turkey came close being selected as U.S. National Emblem, if only it had been up to Benjamin Franklin. If you are interested in this story, the National Wildlife Federation retells it on its webpage, including the hilarious way Franklin voiced his dismay over the bald eagle, which he considered as “a bird of bad moral character.”
A multitude of children and adult books have been written about the early settlers and the first Thanksgiving. Some authors avoid mentioning the ramifications toward the Native Americans, others are straight forward.
I have a new idea for you: Something that my grandmother in Germany did when I was very young. She asked me to bring some paper and crayons and she would tell me a story about how she would spend harvest time as a kid. At certain points she would stop and ask me to paint the sketch of this particular scene.
This took place over several weeks. At the end, when the story was finished, she had six paintings from me. What I didn’t know, she actually wrote down the story and combined it with my paintings as a little booklet. A precious memory. Unfortunately, when she passed on the booklet got lost. So, instead of buying a book about Thanksgiving or harvest, how about making your own with the youngest members of your family?
Even though my booklet was lost, I do still remember the stories, probably because I painted and sketched them.
While the U.S. and Great Britain had turkey as special holiday meals, they were for the longest time unknown in the rest of Europe. Europeans had geese, ducks, pigs and game for the holidays — that is, those who could afford going to the butcher to get such a treat for the family.
Celebrating harvest was also special in Germany, but mostly in rural villages where the livelihood of the villagers centered around agriculture.
My grandmother’s story was about growing up in such a tiny agricultural community in the early 1920s, specifically about their harvest festival, which I never encountered because I grew up in places that were too remote and others that were too urban.
My grandmother told me that in the weeks leading up to the big harvest festival, everybody started to preserve their food — preserve as in preserving it to not go bad over winter. Iceboxes, the predecessor of the refrigerator, were not common in villages. Only the rich major and perhaps the town’s miller would have one. Nobody in my grandmother’s village had money for such a luxury, so preserving food was hard work.
The only animals that would be fed through the winter were the best breeding stock, all others would be harvested. The meat would be smoked, air-dried, salted, pickled and made into sausages that would be hung in the community barn in good air-flow. While one part of the village was working on this, others were busy with the vegetables. Just as with the animals, the best of “seed” potatoes were kept separately for next year’s harvest, the other would be kept in deep potato and coal cellars. Cabbage would get shredded and put into jars with salt and water to become sauerkraut, beets and roots would be pickled.
On the day everything was finished all villager women would pull their special treats together. Some provided flour, others milk, butter, eggs and molasses (made out of sugar beets as cane sugar from the Americas was way too expensive) — those who had fruit trees brought out their preserves and jars of fruit preserved in juice from the summer.
My grandmother told me that the families had only little coal stoves for daily heating and cooking, but on the eve of the harvest festival, the large community oven would get fired up with coal and wood. Early in the morning the oven reached the perfect temperature and the women started creating huge sheets of cake, topped with the preserved fruit.
Then the real party began with music, food and dance — there would be homemade wine and moonshine as well for the adults and fresh cider for the kids.
Whenever my grandmother would tell these stories, her entire face would beam and her light green eyes would sparkle. She would tell me, “Wir hatten nicht viel, aber wir waren dankbar für Gott, der uns alles gab” — “We didn’t have a lot, but we were thankful for what we had from God.”
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, from our family to yours, we wish you a great Thanksgiving Day.
Of course, we also have a recipe for you. A nice and easy recipe for breakfast that is delicious.
Banana patties with honey
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 lg. eggs
2 Tbsp. butter
3 ripe, but firm bananas, sliced
Honey to drizzle over the finished patties
Sift the dry ingredients together (flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt).
Fold in the eggs, milk and vanilla extract slowly.
Add the banana slices
On medium heat add the butter to a large frying pan.
With a spoon, scoop up each banana slice with a little of the batter and fry on each side until golden brown. This works best in small batches.
If you like, you can also make large pancakes out of them.
Serve while hot, with honey.