Doing Right By Thanksgiving and Afterwards

By Becky O’Malley
Wednesday November 26, 2008 - 10:42:00 AM

The traditional Thanksgiving editorial starts off by remembering the Pilgrim Fathers. You never, for some reason, hear about the Pilgrim Mothers. They have been added parenthetically in the lead of the Wikipedia article about the Pilgrims for the sake of political correctness, but there’s no link to any article about them. There must have been Pilgrim Mothers, of course, because otherwise there wouldn’t have been a Society of Mayflower Descendants. 

It seems unlikely, verging on very improbable, that the Fathers cooked the original turkeys, although if they were barbecued, as they might have been, then perhaps the Fathers did do the honors. More likely the Mothers roasted them (the turkeys, not the Fathers). The latest research on the original menu is revisionist, as the most entertaining historical research always is. 

The online version of the Monitor, the newspaper in Concord, Mass., where some of my ancestors stopped off between Plymouth and California, had an editorial on this topic on Monday. Their conclusion, cribbed from a publication of the Plimouth Plantation, a New England tourist attraction: berries, wild grapes and eels—oh my! Mussels, lobster and geese—oh my! Corn, clams and ducks—oh my! And deer and “wildfowl,” probably those turkeys. And finally, “pompions,” now known as pumpkins.  

The editorial writer thought no cranberry sauce, because the Pilgrims didn’t have sugar. But they probably had some honey, and since they were the original sourpusses they might have had a sugarless version, because wild cranberries did grow in Massachusetts even then.  

Was it a potluck, as modern Thanksgiving dinners increasingly are? Here’s what the Concord cousins say the local Native Americans might have brought to the party:  

“Sobaheg is the Wampanoag word for stew, and there’s a good chance it was on the menu for that first Thanksgiving of 1621. A sobaheg recipe from the period calls for Indian corn, kidney beans, pottage fish and ‘flesh of all sorts’—including venison, beaver, bear, moose, otters, raccoons. Add to that Jerusalem artichokes, ground nuts and other roots, squashes, several types of nuts and pompions...” 

Any Berkeleyan who’s ever planted “a few” Jerusalem artichokes knows that these wildly invasive sunflower-type plants are all too eager to supply an abundance of knobby roots for any occasion. The problem is getting rid of them once you’ve planted them— serving them for Thanksgiving might just work.  

We’ve got plenty of raccoons, too, though they’re seldom seen on Berkeley tables. They’re sometimes found in Berkeley kitchens, of course, sneaking in through the cat door to eat the cat food at night. But few of us eat them. They could become the locavore alternative to farmed turkeys, now that Proposition 2 has passed, but they’d have to compete for menu placement with the flocks of wild turkeys periodically sighted on city streets.  

What else could we try for a genuinely locavorish Thanksgiving? Well, yellow sorrel, also known as sour grass or oxalis, is taking over many a Berkeley garden, and it can be made into soup. It contains too much oxalic acid for people with kidney problems, but is otherwise edible, if sour. 

Proper classic French sorrel soup is usually made from a different plant, a standard culinary herb, but my late mother-in-law, desperate for ideas at the last minute, once served soup made from wild oxalis to Richard Olney, a pre-Panisse echt-foody, with such good results that he lauded it in one of his books, never catching on that he had eaten a common weed that is the bane of northern California gardeners.  

As a substitute for cranberries, most of us careless Berkeley gardeners are sure to have raised a few inadvertent sour blackberries during the summer. If only we’d had the foresight to can them! Perhaps next year...  

When the menu questions have been answered, guests are the next topic. At the First Thanksgiving, multiculturalism traditionally was supposed to have been provided by combining Native Americans with Interloper Brits. Descendants of those two groups have been getting along pretty well in the last couple of decades, so in order to spice up the table talk, maybe we should all invite adherents of the various warring desert religions and/or nations of the Middle East to join us. And those who have difficult in-laws should consider Thanksgiving dinner the perfect opportunity to rub them together and see if sparks fly. 

Finally, let’s consider Giving Thanks. It’s more Berkeley to say “Oh Please!” than to say “Thank You,” but we still have a few common blessings for which we’re all grateful. Those of us who were lucky enough to get Obama lawn signs still have them up, and the rest of us are envious, but we’re almost all thankful for the election results. Not only do we have the first-ever African-American president-elect, we also have a new young city councilperson of Latino heritage and possible Native American ancestry to boot. That’s real progress we can be proud of.  

Not, of course, that there’s not plenty to worry about if you’re so inclined. The prospect of the American auto industry going belly-up is sobering, even for those of us who have mocked Detroit cars for 40 years. Revelations about the deliberate perfidy of financial institutions are more and more shocking every day. From top to bottom, you could choose to obsess about everything from global warming to your own IRA.  

I spent Saturday with two seven-year-olds of my acquaintance. They ended the day in mutual tears, one because she thought she’d heard someone say that we’d all be dead from global warming in 35 years and the other lamenting the visible effects of sudden oak death on her favorite woods.  

Folks, it’s not that bad just yet. We can all be thankful this year that we’ve spotted the major problems on the horizon while there’s still time to do something about them. Arguing about just how we might undertake the solutions will provide entertainment for many a Tuesday night in Berkeley, not to mention the Thanksgiving table, but in the end we’ll probably figure out how to do the right thing, whatever that might turn out to be. Here in Berkeley we’re not as dumb as we sometimes look to the outside world, for which we can be truly thankful. After all, if we can turn weeds into gourmet food, what can’t we accomplish with some hard work and thought?