by Jackie Lebouitz and Chris Angell
We here at the Joseph Moore Museum are pretty big fans of the holiday, so we’ve cooked up some exciting information about a few Thanksgiving staples!
Ah, Vaccinium macrocarpon…better known as the North American cranberry! I’m sure you’ve had your fix of cranberry sauce at previous Thanksgiving dinners, but have you ever wondered about the origin of these tiny, red, mystical orbs?
The cranberry has a rich, tasty history, beginning with its roots in Native American culture. It was commonly used for dyes, medicine, and of course, food. One of its most common uses was as an ingredient of pemmican, a blend of crushed cranberries, melted fat, and dried deer meat. The mixture was used as a dyeing agent and as a medicinal for arrow wounds. The name itself is derived from the Pilgrim word for the fruit, or “craneberry,” as the plant’s flowers resemble the heads of Sandhill cranes. Cranberry cultivation began in 1816 with Captain Henry Hall and blossomed into quite an industry, with cranberries being produced in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, and Wisconsin (just to name a few).
From April to November, cranberries are grown in “bogs” of sand, peat, and gravel. The combination of materials is meant to simulate a wetland, the type of habitat in which cranberries are naturally found. The fruit itself grows on vines, similar to strawberries or tomatoes. They also need the combination of acid peat soil and a consistent supply of fresh water in order to properly grow. Even though the list of growth requirements is quite extensive, the United States still manages to produce a whopping 40,000 acres per year. That’s a lot of cranberries!
Because sugar wasn’t available at the time, there was no cranberry sauce at the first Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, the first cranberry sauce was manufactured nearly three hundred years later in 1912.
Turkeys are native to the New World. The familiar wild turkey comes from forests in the United States and Mexico. It’s this species that gives us our domesticated turkey dinners, but there’s actually another species of turkey found only on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Our own regular turkey is a pretty striking bird, but the Oscellated Turkey completes its puffed out display with iridescent greens and oranges. It even has eyespots on its tail feathers, reminiscent of a peacock.
Why do we call them turkeys, anyway? It appears the turkey has a bit of an identity crisis, with names that translate as “French Chicken,” “Greek Chicken,” “Peacock,” “Blue bird,” “Great Duck,” and “Peruvian.” It seems that early English settlers thought turkeys looked quite a lot like guineafowl, so they named them “Turkey Fowl” after the country they believed guineafowl were from (although guineafowl are actually native to Africa). The scientific name for turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, actually translates to: Chicken-Peacock Guineafowl. Around the world, people were unfamiliar with this exotic bird, so they named it after wherever they thought it had come from, giving us names like “French,” “Greek,” and “Peruvian.”
Say it how you will — ᴘᴇᴇ-can or pi-ᴄᴀʜɴ — no Thanksgiving feast is complete without a delicious pecan pie. Though not quite as iconic as its cousin the pumpkin pie, this dessert is equally delicious. Pecans are the seeds of the pecan tree, Carya illinoinensis, which is native to the Southern US and Northern Mexico (the pecan tree is the state tree of Texas!). Pecans are actually a type of hickory. The name itself comes from an Algonquin word meaning “a nut requiring a stone to crack.”
The earliest known recipes that put pecans in a pie date from 1886. It seems to be a variation on the similar, but nutless, chess pie popular in the American South. The promotion of pecan pie as a use for Karo syrup in the 1930s brought the pie to nationwide awareness, and it has remained a holiday staple ever since!