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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee

Appreciating Thanksgiving Crops

Oct 31, 2011 09:09PM ● By Louise Rachel Quigley

Historical accounts say that the original Thanksgiving celebrated the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest, brought about largely because Native Americans introduced the settlers to native crops that could be grown successfully on their lands. This holiday is a great opportunity to appreciate the plants that have both fed the Pilgrims and enriched the world’s cuisine ever since.

Maize was the Indians’ mainstay; it was their “corn” (an English word that once meant any staple grain). Maize was grown in hills with beans and squash, together called the “three sisters.” Painstakingly developed 6,000 years earlier from a western Mexican grass called teosinte, maize was then crossbred further until strains grew over much of North America. Now, it is grown in South America, France, China and South Africa, as well as Mexico and Midwestern U.S. The World Book Encyclopedia estimated that global yield in 2007 was 23 billion bushels.

Most, if not all squashes, and certainly pumpkins, are American natives; American winter (hard) squashes added important vitamins to pre-refrigeration diets. Beans were already known in Europe before Columbus, but kidney, pinto, lima, and navy varieties were among those indigenous (and therefore especially adapted) to North America and are among the most nutritious in their category.

Peppers, especially chilies, are native to America, first encountered by Europeans in the Caribbean. The only kind of pepper in the eastern hemisphere before 1492 was the much milder black peppercorn, from Far Eastern pepper trees. Now, who can imagine Thai, Indian or Szechuan cuisine without them?

Andean potatoes and tropical sweet potatoes are South American in origin. The Pilgrims would not have tasted them, but by 1600, both were established in Europe. Irish immigrants then brought white potatoes to North America. The spectacular population expansion that their adoption in Ireland made possible, and the disastrous and lethal famine when the one variety of potato grown there fell victim to blight, are notorious in history. The Incas had been wiser, growing many varieties together, so if some were blighted, others would survive to sustain the people.

Tomatoes were another Central American native that took a while to catch on. Early recognition of their botanical relationship with deadly nightshade caused suspicion, and colonists and Europeans first grew them as ornamentals. Only in the early 1800s were tomatoes widely accepted into many cuisines, from Italian pasta sauce to Spanish gazpacho.

So, enjoy a Thanksgiving meal of baked beans, mashed white potatoes, sweet potatoes candied with maple syrup (another North American native), succotash (limas, corn, tomato, and bell pepper), corn bread, chili and pumpkin pie. Though the turkey might be iconic, edible plants are the true American stars.


Shorewood resident Louise Rachel Quigley, an avid gardener, is co-organizer of Milwaukee Area Resources for Vegetarianism and editor of MARV's newsletter, as well as a Bradley Method childbirth educator. For more information, call 414-962-2703 or email [email protected].

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