Thanksgiving, more than most celebrations, carries a warm spirit of gratitude for the bounties produced from the earth. Similar holidays and festivals throughout the world celebrate the harvest and what it provides to sustain life during the long winter months ahead.
Early Pilgrims on the harsh shores of Massachusetts were sustained and nourished by uniquely American foods. These foods were unknown to Europeans, yet provided a biological diversity that revolutionized Old World agriculture. We enjoy some of the foods used by the Pilgrims as well as other American foods during this season.
A well-spread Thanksgiving banquet includes, of course, the American turkey. The birds on our table bear little resemblance to the scrawny wild birds but are greatly improved in size, shape and even meat color through agricultural research and development.
Cranberries are a native American crop. These berries require acid soil and high rainfall, so they are not grown in Utah. Actually, they are grown in and harvested from natural or man-made bogs. The bogs are filled with water, causing the berries to float to the surface. They are then skimmed off for harvest. Their color and texture are a delight for the Thanksgiving table.
Sweet potatoes are another traditional Thanksgiving treat with American origins. These plants were spread by early explorers to areas throughout the world. They were so successful in Asia that many people suppose it to be native to that area. Sweet potatoes are not yams, even though they are called yams. They are not even related to yams but are closely related to the true morning glory (not field bindweed). Sweet potatoes grow with orange, white or yellow flesh.
Only the most dedicated gardeners have success with these in Utah. My success has been with slips or transplants placed in "Walls of Water" in warm, well-drained soils. Lots of extra effort is needed to find and grow the transplants, and the roots are difficult to store once they are harvested.
Irish potatoes? Not a chance. The mashed potatoes of Thanksgiving are another American plant. Potato tubers were exported by the Spanish to Europe and soon constituted the major component of many European diets. Potatoes weren't served during the Pilgrims' first dinner but did have a major impact on immigration to this country. Potatoes were soon the major part of the Irish diet. When late blight, a serious fungal disease, destroyed potato crops in that country in 1846-47 it was a major disaster. More than a million people starved to death that year. Another 2 million immigrants to the United States helped shape the future of this nation.
Potatoes grow well for Utah's gardeners. Red varieties include Red Pontiac, Lasoda and Norland. White varieties include Kennebec, Russet Burbank and Butte. Use certified seed and rotate planting locations to help control diseases.
Corn may not always be visible on the Thanksgiving table, but it's certainly part of the dinner. This crop was unknown to Europeans but was grown by the Pilgrims in their early settlements. It has since become one of the world's most valuable crops. It is widely used for fresh eating and grain but has many more uses. Oil, meal and animal feeds - including turkey feed - all come from this crop. It provides valuable ingredients for baking, food processing and soft drinks.
The corn grown in today's garden is much more productive and flavorful. Varieties adapted for Utah include Jubilee, Phenomenal, How Sweet It Is, Breeders Choice, Sugar Buns and Miracle.
Dessert again is from an American vegetable. Pumpkins and squashes were cultivated by the Indians prior to that first Thanksgiving. Winter squashes and pumpkins both have orange flesh, a hard rind, and store well. The canned "pumpkin" purchased from the store is made from squash. Pie filling can also be made from true pumpkins. Either way it's a delightful finish to the feast.
Other vegetables native to the North American continent include beans of all kinds, including lima beans. Tomatoes and peppers were also grown by the early Indians. Tomatoes were not originally considered edible and did not come into widespread use as a food crop until the early 1800s.
The United States is the world's most productive agricultural country. Only 2 percent of the population still farms for a living, but all depend on agriculture for food. This holiday traces its origins to food production that sustained life for those early Pilgrims. Each gardener enjoys that special kinship with the soil and with growing plants that were present at that first Thanksgiving. May we all be truly grateful for the many blessings enjoyed throughout the year.