Cookbook looks at 400 years of Thanksgiving food

Every year, American schoolchildren learn about the "First Thanksgiving," when Pilgrims and Indians came together to celebrate the fall harvest with a feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Rarely does anyone question the authenticity of that teaching.

But after years of research, culinary historian Kathleen Curtin knows better. In "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie" (Clarkson Potter, $22.50, 192 pp.), which she co-wrote with 19th-century food expert Sandra Oliver, Ms. Curtin sets the record straight about what was really eaten on the shores of Plymouth, Mass., in 1621.

After nearly 20 years at Plimoth Plantation, a bicultural living history museum in Plymouth, Mass., Curtin is a leading authority on culinary traditions associated with this American holiday. She writes that it is probable, but not definite, that turkey was on the table. Venison was surely there, but mashed potatoes didn't show up until much later. And while stewed pumpkin was common in 17th-century England, pumpkin pies were still 200 years off.

But "Giving Thanks" is not just about dispelling myths. This engrossing new cookbook traces the history and evolution of Thanksgiving across four centuries and includes more than 80 recipes, each of which tells a story - including a seasonal stew from the native Wampanoag people.

For Curtin, the best part of writing "Giving Thanks" was interviewing a diverse group of Americans about their Thanksgiving recipes and traditions.

"I became fascinated by what people served," she says. "It was often different than what I expected." For example, in Baltimore sauerkraut is typically present at the meal. "That was a revelation!" she says.

And Thanksgiving just wouldn't be Thanksgiving in some households without lasagna. It is popular among Italian-Americans, as one might expect, but it's especially popular among recent immigrants from Eritrea, Bosnia, Trinidad, and India, says Curtin, many of whom consider it the most American of dishes.

In the Midwest, Curtin took an informal poll, asking everyone she met if they served Jell-O salad. "We northerners think of it as kitschy," she says, "but for many people, it's a holiday staple."

Also intriguing to Curtin is the strong Southern influence on 20th-century Thanksgiving dishes. "The American menu has become deeply Southernized," she says, "with foods like sweet potatoes, corn-bread stuffing, baked ham, pecan pie, and the presence of multiple dessert courses."

Turkey appears on most of today's Thanksgiving tables (97 percent of them, in fact), regardless of ethnic or cultural background. Most cooks roast it, but others, such as those from the Deep South, might deep-fry or grill their bird.

Whether your turkey shares a table with Chinese-American rice dressing, French-Canadian pork pie, or Puerto Rican roast pork shoulder (all recipes included in her book), it's important that dishes reflect the culture, tastes, and traditions of the individuals and families sharing the meal, Curtin says.

"Your Thanksgiving menu should tell a story about you," she says. "Let the table speak to who your family is."

At this time of year, when she looks at popular food magazines, Curtin often bristles. "The Thanksgiving recipes are all so trendy," she says. "This holiday is not about trends; it's about tradition. Radicchio salad doesn't say anything about who we are."

For Curtin, the simple dish of mashed carrots and turnips will always hold a special place at her Thanksgiving table. "It was my grandfather's favorite side dish," she recalls.

This year, Curtin plans to share her Thanksgiving feast with relatives a week early because, on Nov. 24, she'll be helping to serve 3,000 guests at Plimoth Plantation.

It's a sacrifice Curtin doesn't mind making. In her book, she speaks of Thanksgiving as a holiday about "going home ... about comfort, ritual, and nostalgia for a simpler time."

She couldn't be more delighted to help conjure up these feelings for thousands of guests - many of whom might not have anyone to celebrate with, and in doing so, to enlighten them a bit about how the Thanksgiving meal has evolved over 400 years.

Curried Pumpkin Bisque

The humble pumpkin went upscale in the late 20th century. Vegetable bisques like this were all the rage in the 1970s. For more kick, dust the soup with a little cayenne before serving.

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup diced onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup peeled and chopped carrot
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup canned crushed tomatoes, with juice
4 cups homemade or canned chicken or vegetable broth
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree or 2 cups homemade pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon curry powder, or to taste
2 bay leaves
1 cup light cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic and sauté until vegetables are very soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, broth, pumpkin, curry powder, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the soup for about 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Let the soup cool slightly. Transfer by batches to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Return soup to a cooking pot, stir in the cream, and heat briefly over low heat; do not allow the soup to boil. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and additional curry powder, if desired. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro. Serves 6 to 8.

* From "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie" (Clarkson Potter), by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation.

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