Trying To Be Greener

Safer eco-living, one day at a time

Rethinking Thanksgiving November 12, 2008

Once again, my friend Jen and fellow Eco Woman is here at Trying To Be Greener. This month, it’s all about Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, which means that people all across the country will soon be descending on their grocery stores with mile-long shopping lists.  Grocery stores are stocking up such items as turkeys bred for size and not flavor, boxes of instant stuffing, and cans of jellied cranberries.  Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? No, not really.

What if this year, you were to do something truly radical?  What if you were to change all or part of your Thanksgiving dinner to include more homemade foods?  AND what if you were to cook seasonally and only serve foods that are available to you this time of the year?

Hmmm… That makes things a bit more challenging, doesn’t it?

Cooking from scratch is actually less expensive than buying processed foods.  For example, a box of stuffing mix costs $3-$4, depending on what brand you buy.  Instead, you could make your own stuffing and it would taste so much better, as well as contain fewer preservatives and involve less wasteful packaging. And, instead of using instant mashed potatoes, why not cook up some russets yourself?

Homemade food — that’s the easy part.  But what about eating seasonally?

Ahh, that’s a little trickier.

I majored in American history in college and one thing that has always fascinated me is the so-called First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, which was a simple harvest festival that was held in 1621.  (The reality is that harvest festivals and meals of thanksgiving have been held for centuries and no one knows when the first such meal occurred in what is now known as the United States.)  For their festival, the Pilgrims ate what they had available at that time of the year.  In that part of Massachusetts in 1621 those foods were:

  • fish (cod, bass, herring, eel) and seafood (clams, lobsters, mussels)
  • birds (wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge)
  • venison
  • grains (wheat flour, Indian corn and corn meal, barley)
  • vegetables (squashes, beans, and possibly peas)
  • nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, acorns, hickory nuts)
  • dried fruits (raspberries, strawberries, grapes, cherries, blueberries, gooseberries)

Hmmm, no cranberries on that list.  Or green bean casserole.  And definitely no sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

The foods that Americans now traditionally eat for Thanksgiving are actually the result of a national day of thanksgiving that Americans celebrated in 1863, and which has been celebrated annually ever since.  Again, foods that were either readily available or had been stored for the winter were eaten:  turkey, potatoes, cranberries, pumpkins, and more.

Since that time, Thanksgiving dinner has evolved and become much more a matter of personal taste and family tradition than a meal that celebrates another successful harvest and features seasonal foods.  There are debates on the different kinds of stuffing (cornbread, chestnut, etc.) and the different ways to prepare the turkey (roasted, deep fried, and even grilled) and one’s preferences are highly personal and usually based on family traditions.

So, what about eating seasonally?

Well, that’s going to vary, depending on where you live.  For example, I live in Virginia, where cranberries would not normally be found, so I would eliminate cranberries from my meal.  (And who really eats those anyway?)  Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins are readily available here.  Apples are plentiful in the Old Dominion, so it would make sense to have homemade applesauce, cooked apples, and/or apple pie.   I could make a butternut squash soup, roasted acorn squash, and/or cauliflower gratin.  Late fall greens, such as collards, spinach, and even some hardy lettuces would also be possible.  Pumpkin pie would definitely be on my menu.

In short, for me, it would be incredibly easy for me to eat seasonal local foods for Thanksgiving.  I’m sure that in some regions it might be a little trickier.  But, it is possible for everyone to make at least part of the meal seasonal.

If you are interested in learning more about eating seasonally and locally, I encourage you to read Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book Animal, Vegetable Miracle (click here for a review), which talks about her family’s year-long experiment with eating locally.  She writes honestly about the challenges and pleasures of their endeavor.  She talks about Thanksgiving, of course, and devotes a very humorous chapter to turkeys, which is we all know is the most important part of the meal.

A hot topic in recent years is heritage vs. conventional turkeys.  The typical Thanksgiving turkey is  a Broadbreasted White that has been raised on a farm, force-fed grains that are not part of their natural diet, and pumped full of antibiotics.  Broadbreasted Whites are grown for size, not flavor.  In fact, they grow so large that they cannot move themselves easily by the end of their short lives and cannot even reproduce without outside help.

Heritage turkeys are the exact opposite.

Heritage turkeys are breeds that have been around a long time — generations.  Heritage turkeys are not kept crammed into cages, nor are they stuffed full of feed and antibiotics.  They get much more exercise and have a varied diet.  Heritage turkeys take longer to reach maturity, but the resulting bird has more fat.  Fat = flavor.  If you are interested in finding out more about heritage turkeys, go to Heritage Foods USA.

Unfortunately, heritage turkeys do cost more per pound.  A lot more.   Usually, 4-5X more, which is just not feasible for a lot of people.  More budget-conscious alternatives would be to check out your farmers’ market or your organic grocery store for an organic locally-raised turkey.

So that’s the low-down on how to re-think your Thanksgiving meal.  My challenge to you is to try to make your meal more seasonal. How you do this is entirely up to you, but I hope you will make at least one change, great or small.  And, don’t forget to give thanks for the farmers who grew your potatoes, corn, and more.

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Copyright © 2008. Trying To Be Greener. All rights reserved.

One Response to “Rethinking Thanksgiving”

  1. Kirstin Says:

    So many people don’t know what was actually eaten at the first “Thanksgiving” – even oysters were on the table!

    We should all try to incorporate some seasonal dishes, no matter where we live and be thankful for the food that surrounds us.

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