Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Welcome to the New World

[I'm a bit busy this week - big surprise - so my regular posting schedule is on hold. The painting of the week and all will be back next week.]

Once again, Thanksgiving draws near - at least for those of us in the United States. It is the one dinner where I intentionally focus on foods that are native to the Americas. My planned menu isn't very different from last year, but I thought I might make a few comments on some of the dishes (historical and otherwise).

Turkey - The turkey has an odd quirk in its history. While it was native to the Americas, it was domesticated in England. Wild turkeys were brought back to England in the early 16th century, where they were carefully bread for meat production and such. There they quickly supplanted the bustard as the common large bird at the dining table. The domestic turkey was then imported back to the Americas (re-imported? back-ported?).

Gravy - Technically, gravy is one of the four "mother sauces" of French cuisine (i.e. velouté), and while there is at least one medieval sauce recipe that is thickened with flour, the technique didn't really become common until the 19th century.

Stuffing - I suppose this could be considered "old world" and medieval, seeing as there are medieval recipes for a farsure (Middle English for "stuffing") made of bread to stuff into meat, but serving stuffing is a strong tradition in my family, and I'm not going to risk a holiday revolt. I do add dried cranberries to the mix, along with sage, and I usually use a mix of white bread and pumpernickel.

Mashed Potatoes - The potato is thought to have originated in South America. It was introduced to Europe in the early 16th century, and quickly became well established there.

Green Beans - There is some confusion over the history of these beans, mostly due to the use of the word "haricots". From what I understand, that name was used in reference to other varieties of beans before Columbus' voyages, and all members of the genus Phaseolus are new-world plants. This year I'm going to try serving freshly steamed green beans with Mornay sauce and home made pumpernickel croutons.

Cranberry Sauce - Cranberries are related to blueberries and the like, but are very different from their European cousins. I like to make cranberry chutney each year (which includes a little capsicum pepper - also a new world food). It's one of my favorite recipes, and is well liked by the family. I also make a homemade jellied cranberry sauce for my step-father. One of these years I'm going to use a can to mold the jellied stuff so it has the "cutting lines".

Corn Relish - This is something new I'm trying this year. It felt strange to cook a dinner featuring new-world foods that didn't include corn and tomatoes. These are two of the most successful plants in the culinary world. So I'm going to make up a small dish using baby corn and sun-dried tomatoes. If it turns out well then I'll post the recipe.

Pumpkin Pie - Pumpkins, like the other species of squash, originated in North America, though the word "pumpkin" itself appears to have come from France (by way of England). Pumpkins were apparently accepted into European cuisine fairly quickly.

Apple Pie - Ok, I admit that this one is not at all "new world". There are plenty of recipes for apple pies dating back to before the 14th century. Add to that the fact that apples weren't native to North America, and suddenly the phrase "As American as apple pie" is more than a bit ironic. This is another one of those cases where tradition outweighs geekiness though. If I didn't serve apple pie at Thanksgiving, I'd be cast out from the family.

This is what American food is really all about. It's not all cheeseburgers and french fries. It's a mix of traditional European dishes made with new world foods. Happy Thanksgiving!

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