Judith A. Wakefield
November 23, 2003

Traditional Thanksgiving Foods

Thanksgiving is one of our truly American holidays. In honor of the Pilgrims many families still serve the same foods the pilgrims and Indians shared.

Cranberries are one of only a few native North American fruits. Long before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, the North American Indians combined crushed cranberries with dried deer meat and melted fat to make pemmican - a convenience food that would keep a long time. They believed that the cranberry had medicinal properties and brewed cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds. Indian women made their rugs and blankets colorful with the red cranberry juice. Later, American sailors carried barrels of cranberries while at sea as a source of vitamin C, much like British "limeys" carried limes aboard ships.

The different Indian tribes had different names for cranberries but it was the Pilgrims who gave the cranberry its modern name. To them, the pink cranberry blossoms resembled the heads of cranes; therefore the word "crane berry," later contracted to "cranberry."

Cranberries are grown in several states and are available fresh September to December. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a month or frozen double-wrapped in plastic for up to nine months. Although many families buy canned cranberry sauce, some still make their own. Cranberry sauce can be made by cooking cranberries, water and sugar together. It can also be made into a raw relish by combining chopped cranberries with chopped orange and sugar. The cranberry juice we find in the grocery stores is not 100% cranberry juice. The juice is too tart. The "cranberry juice" is called "cranberry cocktail" because water and sugar are added to make it taste better. Fresh cranberries can be used in a variety of ways, for muffins, breads, in cookies, or pies or crisp with apples, to name a few. Dried cranberries have been on the market for the last few years and they are a welcome addition to many dishes, from desserts to salads.

Pumpkins were on the menu at the first Thanksgiving feast. The Indians ate pumpkin roasted, boiled and stewed. The first pumpkin pies were not in a flaky pastry shell, they were in the pumpkin skin. They cut out the stem end from a pumpkin, scooped out the seeds and loose fiber and filled the pumpkin two thirds full of milk sweetened with maple sugar, syrup or honey and added whatever spices they had on hand. They put the lid back on and placed the pumpkin in a (brick) over for five or six hours. To eat the "pie" they scooped out the cooked flesh and served it with butter and molasses.

If you got a pumpkin at Halloween that you didnít cut it can be cooked for pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. To cook a whole pumpkin cut it in half through the stem portion, scoop out strings and seeds. Grease a large shallow baking pan with shortening, then arrange the pumpkin halves, cut-side down in the pan. Prick the skin with a sharp knife tip to let excess moisture escape. Bake uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, or until the flesh is very tender when pierced and the skin yields easily to light pressure. Let cool, then scoop out the pulp and either puree a cup or two at a time in a blender, or food processor, or mash thoroughly with a potato masher, food mill or meat grinder. When smooth, set it in a wire strainer and allow the excess water to drain off the puree. Let it drain for 30 minutes or until the pumpkin looks like thick mashed potatoes. This will keep the pie (or other dish) from being watery. Put in a covered container and refrigerate for up to 2 days, or freeze in plastic container in amounts called for in your favorite recipes. Leave Ĺ inch head space, and you can freeze it for up to a year. Approximately one and seven eighths cups of cooked pumpkin equals a pound can of pumpkin, so you can use it the same as the canned pumpkin for pies, etc. The same cooking process could also be done in a microwave oven, check your instruction book for the time needed.

If you are making a pie and the recipe calls for pumpkin pie spice, but you donít have any, mix together two teaspoons cinnamon, one teaspoon ginger, one half teaspoon nutmeg and one half teaspoon cloves. Use three and a quarter teaspoons of this mixture per one and a half cups cooked pumpkin. This is a handy little recipe to write in your favorite cookbook.

Corn and turkey are the other two foods commonly mentioned as part of that Thanksgiving meal. The Indians even had popcorn. The showed the Pilgrims how to pop the corn and ate it with milk over it like we eat cereal for breakfast!

Most of us buy our turkeys at the grocery store, although some avid hunters still have wild turkey for Thanksgiving. Keep in mind that it takes about 24 hours per five pounds for frozen turkeys to thaw in the refrigerator and that they should not be put out on the counter to thaw. This is a food safety problem, the outside could get warm enough for bacteria to grow to dangerous levels before the inside is completely thawed. You can thaw turkeys in cold water, but you should change the water every thirty minutes. You can also thaw it in the microwave, immediately before baking.

Since we have been using temperature to gauge doneness of meat for food safety sake, telling when a turkey was done without becoming dried out has become complicated. If the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing should reach one hundred sixty five degrees to be safe. But the breast meat is naturally tender and will be done at one hundred seventy degrees. In a stuffed bird the breast meat will be done (and starting to become dry) long before the stuffing reaches the safe temperature. Since the thighs are muscles that are used for walking the meat is less tender and needs to be one hundred eighty degrees to be tender. This complicates matters even further.

One solution is to bake the dressing separately from the bird. Baking the turkey in one of the baking bags helps hold in moisture so the breasts are not dried out before the thigh gets hot enough. Before we started using temperature as the signal for doneness a two pronged fork was pierced into the armpit of the bird, slightly inside the breast. If the fork was warm, and the juice was clear, it was done. When a bird is fully cooked, the drumstick moves easily in the socket, the meat is not pink and the chicken or turkey has all the juices inside.

If you have questions about cooking turkeys there are three toll free hot lines and web sites that are available in November and December to answer questions and help solve problems with turkeys. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-800-535-4555 - www.fsis.usda.gov., the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line 1-800-323-4848 - www.butterball.com, and the Purdue Consumer Hotline 1-800-473-7383 - www.purdue.com.. For baking questions the Land OíLakes Holiday Bakelineís number is 1-800-782-9606 and their website is www.landolakes.com.