Debunking the myths of America's beginnings has become a favorite pursuit of historians. We now know that not all was hunky-dory between the Pilgrims and the Indians who helped them avert starvation. And turkey may not even have been served on that first Thanksgiving.
Since records are sketchy, we may never know exactly what people did eat in 1621. But we do know which ingredients were available at the time -- and many of them make up the same foods we eat today to celebrate the holiday.
One chef uniquely qualified to comment on the occasion is Jasper White, chef at Jasper's Restaurant in Boston and an expert on the traditions of New England cooking. I was lucky enough recently to preview his version of Thanksgiving dinner at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Because holidays are times to celebrate tradition, Mr. White's menu features mostly traditional dishes. But he does not adhere slavishly to ancestral practice, choosing instead to play variations on the theme. A similar approach may be just the thing for you if the Thanksgiving-dinner blahs have hit your menu.
Game birds, venison, seafood (lobsters, clams, oysters), corn bread, succotash and beach plums were probably main items at the first Thanksgiving feast, so Chef White makes them the centerpieces of his updated menu.
He favors serving more than one main course and supplements the traditional turkey with saddle of venison and beach plum sauce. To accompany the meats, he serves oyster and spicy sausage dressing, a gratin of root vegetables, cranberry relish and grilled leeks and watercress salad with vinaigrette sauce.
Simple but tasty appetizers include spiced nuts, pickled beets and a platter of raw clams and oysters with lemon and horseradish. Of course, there must be pumpkin pie for dessert, but why not also serve pumpkin spice cake with maple-walnut ice cream? And how about apple cider sorbet, pears poached in wine and assorted homemade cookies?
Following are some recipes from "Jasper White's Cooking From New England" (Harper and Row, 1989).
Succotash (corn and beans) was probably a mainstay at early Thanksgiving dinners. New Englanders, says Mr. White, use cranberry beans (also called shell beans), but you can substitute lima beans if you can't find them.
1/4 pound slab bacon cut in 1/4 -inch dice
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups shelled cranberry beans or lima beans
2 cups corn kernels
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Render bacon in a large skillet until it starts to crisp. Add onion and cook 5 minutes or until tender. Add beans and 2 cups water. Simmer, adding more water if needed, 20-30 minutes or until beans are tender. Add corn and heavy cream and simmer 5 minutes. Add chives and season with salt and pepper. Serves eight to 10.
GRATIN OF TURNIPS
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 to 3 pounds Maine or other all-purpose potatoes
2 pounds turnips or rutabagas
4 cups heavy cream
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Grease bottom and sides of a 9-inch-square baking dish with the garlic and butter. Peel and dice potatoes and turnips into 3/4 -inch cubes. Combine and spread them evenly in the baking dish. Bring cream slowly to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Pour cream over vegetables, cover loosely with foil and bake in a 350-degree oven 30 minutes. Remove cover and cook 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender and the top is golden brown and bubbling. Serves eight to 10.
APPLE CIDER SORBET
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 cups water
6 cups fresh cider
Combine sugar and water, bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Cool. Combine 3 cups of the syrup and the cider. Chill well. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions or in a flat pan, pureeing the mixture in a food processor once during the freezing process. Serves eight.