Harvesting the American Feast

Four emblematic ingredients combine in a holiday dinner intimately connected with our American past.

By Regina Schrambling

Published on January 23, 2007

My family never had much money, but there were two days a year when we got to see how the other half ate: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanks partly to the kindness of strangers, on those occasions we always sat down to the kind of mainstream American holiday meal that has been handed down from family to family for centuries in this country—and that has, in our own times, been marketed until it has become an essential bit of shared American consciousness.

That standardization of tastes is what makes holiday foods comforting—and a little miraculous. How is it that my family in a tiny town in Arizona overstuffed itself on virtually the same dishes eaten by my father's relatives in rural Oklahoma and my mother's immigrant Irish family in New York City—and probably by just about every family anywhere in between? Of course, there were differences. I know now that not everyone carves up a formerly frozen turkey the way we did every year. The daring take their cues from the Old World and serve goose instead. And not everyone stuffs a big bird with stale bread and poultry seasoning. Some reach for native American wild rice.

Of course, no one's holiday table is properly set without cranberries and pumpkin, festive staples since Pilgrim days. The berries may turn up in a gelatinous sauce molded with rings from the can or in a fresh salsa with cilantro. Canned or frozen, the squash could be baked in a pie; fresh, it could be cooked and whipped into a mousse. Either way, red and orange are the patriotic colors of the American holiday dinner.

Goose, wild rice, cranberries, and pumpkins turn up on the same menus for one reason, a reason that seems anachronistic in a country now accustomed to finding asparagus and strawberries in the market all year long: They all come into season at roughly the same time. Wild rice, cranberries, and pumpkins are harvested between late August and early November, and geese hatched from April to late June are ready for slaughter from September to November. No matter that wild rice and canned pumpkin are sold virtually year-round, while cranberries can be frozen and geese almost always are.

Goose may be the least common American holiday main course, but it is also the most historically correct. Goose was probably the main bird served at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1621. Turkey, then exclusively a wild thing, gamy and tough, didn't become a holiday standard until 1829.

Geese, first domesticated by the ancient Greeks, had been a part of the Christmas feast abroad for centuries. In England, where so many American culinary customs (especially those relating to the holidays) originated, the meaty bird reached its apotheosis. According to legend, Queen Elizabeth was feasting on goose the day she was told of the Spanish Armada's defeat in 1588. She promptly ordered that the victory be celebrated with the same dish every Michaelmas (September 29) thereafter. That custom waned, but succulent roast goose became the quintessential holiday symbol—as Charles Dickens illustrated in A Christmas Carol.

The great 19th-century French chef Auguste Escoffier thought geese fit only for foie gras, and roast goose remains comparatively rare on French tables today. The rest of Europe, though, saw a juicy meal in that dark flesh. Germans, Russians, Scandinavians, and Hungarians all traditionally serve roast goose with fruit stuffing at Christmas.

America's domesticated geese have changed radically over the past years, as producers have done everything imaginable to transform not just the goose's image but the goose itself. Over half of all American-bred geese now weigh in at 10 to 12 pounds, up from eight pounds, and can feed six. They are bred to be leaner, with all the fat conveniently contained between the skin and the delicate flesh. For aesthetic reasons, their skin and feathers are now white instead of brown. And the old song about Christmas a-coming and geese getting fat no longer rings true: They're plump by Labor Day.

The vast majority of all geese in this country are sold frozen, so that the birds can be available year-round. Most American geese are sold on the East or West coasts, where immigrants from Europe and Asia are still more accustomed to goose than turkey. But demand all over America is growing.

The most natural American stuffing for goose is something the bird might choose for itself—a food the Ojibwa Indians called manomin (gift of the Great Spirit) and the Europeans labeled crazy oats or wild rice. Despite a physical similarity, wild rice isn't rice at all, but the cereal-like seeds of a tall grass, Zizania aquatica, indigenous to the lakes and rivers of Minnesota and Canada, and long a staple of the Indian diet in these areas.

Most "wild" rice in stores today is about as wild as shiitake mushrooms, since researchers in the late 1960s developed a strain that could be grown commercially in paddies. Treated with chemicals and mechanically harvested, this wild rice has cornered the market and is cheaper than the truly wild version. Paddy rice is smaller, harder, and less flavorful than real wild rice, and it takes twice as long to cook. The real thing, often labeled "lake-grown" or "hand-harvested," is organic, grayish-brown, and has an almost smoky flavor, which is imparted by the processing—the fresh green grains are dried and parched in cast-iron drums over a wood fire or natural gas. As a tough-talking harvester told me when I visited Cass Lake in Minnesota to see how wild rice is gathered, "You can make paddy rice eatable, but you can't make it good."

Real wild rice is harvested today the same way that the Indians have done it for more than 1,000 years—by a team of two traveling in a canoe. By law, to help preserve both an important element of Chippewa culture and the wild resource itself, the rice can be gathered only by hand. Because the process is so labor-intensive—and because a good crop depends on temperate weather (an entire crop can be blown away in a windy storm)—prices for the commodity are steep. What's more, 100 pounds of green rice becomes 30 to 50 pounds after processing. (Luckily for the buyer, the rice triples in volume when cooked, and just one cupful of raw grains stuffs a good-size goose.)

If wild rice is a luxury, the cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) may well have always been a staple at the American holiday table. Historians at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts say that the tart fruit was probably eaten at the first Thanksgiving—not as sauce but as "pudding in the belly" (stuffing to us), probably inside roasted geese. Settlers accustomed to sourish gooseberries in sauces back home adapted easily to the new fruit, and in 1672 an Englishman named John Josselyn described how both Indians and settlers were boiling the berries with sugar to make a sauce.

Wampanoag Indians called the cranberry ibimi, or bitter berry. Early English names for it included marsh-wort, fen-berry, and moss-berry. Its modern name in our language has its origins in the Low German word Kranebere, or craneberry—a reference to the shape of the blossoms on the vines in midsummer, which to some observers suggest the head of a crane.

For about 200 years after the Pilgrims landed, cranberries were a windfall, something gathered wild from the vines indigenous to the marshy areas around Cape Cod. In 1816, however, a man named Henry Hall happened to notice that the vines bore more berries if they had been covered by sand blown over them in winter. He tried deliberately sanding them, got good results, and an industry was born. Today, most cranberry bogs are created from scratch, with layers of peat and sand and state-of-the-art irrigation systems.

As recently as the 1950s, cranberries were still picked mostly by hand, a spine-cracking task done with heavy wooden scoops. Mechanical harvesting, developed in the 1950s and '60s, transformed the industry.

Cranberry growers describe their annual harvest as the greatest show in agriculture, and after a number of trips to Massachusetts to watch it in progress, I cannot disagree. For six weeks every fall, acres upon acres of cranberry bogs are flooded for the "wet harvest," which produces berries destined for juice and sauces. Literally billions of intensely red berries, shaken off the vines, float on the surface of the bog—illuminating the landscape with a brilliant glow—before being collected and funneled into trucks.

Fruit destined to be sold fresh, however, has to be harvested "dry" to avoid sogginess. Dry-picking is done by mechanical harvesters that look like huge lawn mowers with burlap bags attached. These roam over the bogs, combing berries off the vines. When the bags are full, they're emptied into huge bins and then whisked off to dry land by helicopter or crane. Berries picked dry are still screened the way they have been for decades: In the factory, they are sent down a multilevel separator; when they drop out, they must bounce seven times before they're considered salable.

Since cranberries, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, come only once a year, home cooks have always canned them as preserves or sauces. In 1912, the first large-scale cranberry cannery opened for the use of hand-pickers; and by 1930, the growers' cooperative—now known as Ocean Spray—was formed. It wasn't long before the sauce began seeping into the gravy and mashed potatoes on virtually every holiday plate in America.

Pumpkin, whether canned or in frozen pies, certainly has its place on the festive table as well. Though they had almost certainly never tasted it back in Europe, and though they most likely didn't bake it into pies, it was the squash probably eaten the most by the Pilgrims. Historians believe that the settlers savored this New World bounty the way the Indians did—as a vegetable, baked in the shell in the ashes of a wood fire. The first recipe for pumpkin pie didn't appear in print until 1796, when Amelia Simmons's American Cookery included two versions—which happen to be surprisingly similar to the recipe that has been printed on the back of the Libby's can since the 1950s.

As members of the squash family, pumpkins were part of the cultivated holy trinity of the Indian diet, along with corn and beans. Pumpkins have been domesticated for at least 9,000 years, but they were unknown outside the Americas before Columbus paid a call. In 1584, a Frenchman named Jacques Cartier wrote home from the Saint Lawrence River of finding gros melons, or large melons—melons being the European food they seemed to resemble most closely. Translated into English, the term got corrupted into pompions, and then pumpkins. To the Narraganset Indians, though, these squash were just another askutasquash—a green thing eaten raw.

In America, several varieties of pumpkins may be found, in a range of colors, from Jack-Be-Littles (miniature versions of the already small sugar, or pie, pumpkins) to the fibrous jack-o'-lantern pumpkins kids carve for Halloween. Since 1929, though, the Dickinson—the variety of pumpkin sold in cans—has been the most prevalent. It is a large pumpkin about the size and shape of a watermelon, with buff-colored skin and thick orange flesh.

Canned pumpkin will keep almost indefinitely. It's no surprise, however, that spokesmen for the familiar Libby's brand, owned by the Nestle Food Company, say that most of their sales still come in the fall, particularly around Thanksgiving.

Pumpkins, cranberries, wild rice, and geese symbolize common tastes and traditions in the American melting pot. Their harvest, preparation, and enjoyment are touchstones of a shared cultural history, no matter where we come from, or where we're going.

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