Thanksgiving Eating

San Antonio Express News
Sunday, November 20, 2005

By Dr. Jerry Parsons

Turkey clip artOne of the most important holidays of the year occurs this week. Thanksgiving is a holiday which hopefully conjures up feelings of sincere appreciation for what we are, and what we have. Many make the mistake of only considering material possessions and accumulated wealth. But the greatest possessions are those which cannot be touched. Faith is one such intangible which is worth more than any material goods.

Faith is a belief which is not based on proof. The faith is America’s founding fathers (who ventured into an uncharted wilderness with hopes for a brighter future) is exemplified by every gardener or farmer who tries to grow vegetables in that cantankerous stuff we loosely refer to in South Texas as “soil.” The circumstances are not as dire, but the attitude needed is the same stubbornness and determination mixed with faith in “what can be.”

Gardeners have been blessed with a feeling of what is involved in producing agricultural commodities. These small plot farmers called gardeners have fought drought, pestilence and environmental adversities in an effort to produce a crop. Many modern day Americans cannot even comprehend the natural tragedies against which farmers gamble with the planting of every crop. Texas’ farmers experience severe droughts followed by fall monsoons. Gardeners experience the same disasters, but do not go hungry because of crop loss. Such an agricultural production system which continues to feed and clothe Americans and the rest of the world, even during periods of adverse weather conditions, is another blessing to be appreciated since eating seems to be the one Thanksgiving event in which Americans unanimously participate. After all, is Thanksgiving complete without a steaming fowl astride the family serving platter surrounded by gourmet delights? And how many of us take time to ponder the growing conditions of our steaming turkey or worry about how our potatoes were fertilized-luckily, we don’t have to worry about such trivial matters in a country where obesity, and not starvation, is the main concern.

Of course, we know how all of this eating got started. The English colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, decided to give thanks for their first successful year in America and gave a luncheon. Being the thing to do in Plymouth in the 1620’s, neighboring Indians were invited. It was a pot luck affair. In fact, if the Indians had not come, the meal would have been a snack instead of a luncheon!

That brings us to the point of menu. We all know that American tradition dictates for us a menu of turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, gravy and potatoes, bread, and a dessert of pumpkin pie. The first Thanksgiving may have had a similar menu. Corn, pumpkins and squash, beans, sunflower, and Jerusalem artichoke are true native American vegetables. The field peas, cowpeas, watermelons, cantaloupes, and peppers being grown by Indians when the colonists arrived were picked up from Spanish gardens in Florida and the Southwest. A possible menu could have been:

Salad: Poke, purslane, lamb’s quarters, dock, or pigweed greens.

Main Course: Deer, wild turkey, rabbit, quail, or duck served with succotash from roasted green corn and mixed with green beans; hominy from dried field corn soaked in lye; bread from ground dried corn or mashed hominy mixed with acorns, beans or pumpkins; and various dishes of corn, squash, kidney beans, sunflower, Jerusalem artichokes, peas, watermelons, cantaloupes, and peppers.

Dessert: Bread from buckwheat or rye served with pumpkin molasses, honey pumpkin custard, or pumpkin pie. Of course, an abundance of pumpkin beer and fresh grape wine made the occasion more enjoyable for all in attendance.

For the latest rendition of the Pilgrims’ Menu from Kathleen Curtin, Food Historian at Plimoth Plantation, see the third column in the November section at:

In the 1600’s, just the act of surviving took a 100 percent effort on everybody’s part. Most of this was directed toward food production. I mentioned crude tools which were used. Fertilizing each hill of corn with redolent mackerel, shad or herring was pretty time consuming and lacked the efficiency of modern techniques. Of course, they could sell their produce as “organically grown” and get a higher price! Most of us this year will not worry about whether or not we will have anything to eat for our Thanksgiving feast. The efficiency of the 13 percent of our population who are in agriculture has assured that we will leave the table with a satisfied appetite. The quantity and quality of produce which Americans enjoy every day, not only on Thanksgiving, is truly a tribute to the American farmer and our free enterprise system.

So remember this week, Thanksgiving is “the act of giving thanks; grateful acknowledgment of benefits or favors.” As you stagger away from the Thanksgiving feast with stomach pains from overeating and guilty feelings from lack of control, you may curse the American agricultural system for providing so much good eating; but remember, at least you have the choice – thanks to American agriculture and the farmers who make it work. Surely these 13 percent of our total population who feed us deserve our “grateful acknowledgment of benefits provided.”

Have a happy and thankful Thanksgiving holiday.

Dr. Jerry Parsons is a Professor for Texas A&M University and a Texas Cooperative Extension Horticulturist for over 30 years in South Central Texas. For more information on this or other horticulture topics, go to and our County Extension website at

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