A Bountiful Feast
by: Aidan Feeney
The tradition of Thanksgiving is largely about telling a story through food. It is about food as a symbol. And in such stories, the preparation of the meal is as much of an event as the meal itself.
Families gather in kitchens and prepare recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. These recipes evolve over time, but they always pay homage to the past.
The gardener in me cannot help but see the similarity between the Thanksgiving tradition and the tradition of saving heirloom seeds. Similar to a small wooden box of recipes, heirloom seeds are often prized family possessions, passed from one generation to the next. These heirloom varieties have been carried here by people from faraway lands.
Now, imagine if we were to take the tradition of Thanksgiving one step further, by not only telling a story through the cooking and sharing of a meal, but also through the cultivation and growing of food. What would the meal look like if we prepared our Thanksgiving recipes using regional heirloom vegetable varieties?
What follows is a list of heirloom vegetables, all with their origins in the Northeast, that could be grown and harvested as part of a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
King Philip Corn
This historic corn is named after Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem who was also known as King Philip by the Puritan settlers of New England. This variety produces beautiful copper-colored ears of corn, used to make corn flour and grits. It is a wonderful example of living history, as it is the direct descendent of the corn grown by the Wampanoag. It is speculated that the corn was either given to European settlers, or perhaps taken during the crop raids of King Philip’s War in 1675. During that conflict, settlers laid siege to 1,000 acres of Wampanoag crops.
Although the way King Philip Corn passed between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims is not exactly the peaceful myth surrounding that famous harvest meal, it has been grown by and fed numerous generations of New Englanders.
To grow this corn, plant it in June through July for an August or September harvest. Plant the seeds in rows at least two feet apart, with about 18 inches of space between plants in the row. Allow the ears to mature and dry on the stalks for as long as weather permits before harvesting the corn.
If you want to be part of the tradition by saving seed for future planting, make sure your crop is two miles or so from any other corn plantings. This will ensure that you do not cross-pollinate with another variety.
The modern holiday began when President Abraham Lincoln announced that Nov. 26, 1863 would be an official day of thanksgiving. His intent was to celebrate the Union Army’s victory at Gettysburg.
Over a decade later, the Macomber Turnip became a mainstay for Massachusetts vegetable farmers. Developed in Westport by two brothers, this root crop is descended from Russian and Swedish genetics, and produces beautiful and delicious turnips reliably in our climate.
Nantucket farmers saved Macomber seed and developed their own version of the turnip, although I haven’t heard of anyone continuing to grow and save that strain. If you decide to grow this variety and serve it on Thanksgiving, you will certainly not be the first Nantucketer to do so.
To grow these turnips, seed them directly into your garden soil in rows 20 inches apart. Cover the seeds in half an inch of soil and thin seedlings to six inches apart to allow the roots space for sizing up. Cover them with a row cover to prevent root-maggot damage. The seeds can be purchased from the Seed Savers Exchange website (http://www.seedsavers.org).
Nantucket Long Pie Pumpkin
If there was ever a call to action for Nantucket gardeners, growing the Nantucket Long Pie Pumpkin has to be it. Reportedly brought to the island on a whaleship in the 1830s, this pumpkin quickly became a favorite on Nantucket, and eventually with Maine farmers as well.
Bearing a close resemblance to the Algonquin Pumpkin heirloom, the Nantucket Long Pie Pumpkin is an oblong gourd, weighing five to eight pounds. It is best harvested green with an orange spot on the rind where it is in contact with the
ground. It ripens post-harvest in storage, and as the pumpkin turns orange on the outside, its flesh sweetens on the inside. By all accounts I can find, no other variety comes as close to making the very best pumpkin pie.
To grow Nantucket Long Pie Pumpkins, I recommend transplanting seedlings into your garden in June for a September harvest. Plant them in rows four feet apart and give them two feet of space between plants in the row. If possible, keep the plants under a row cover until they begin to flower. Harvesting in late September will leave plenty of time for ripening and
curing before Thanksgiving. Nantucket Long Pie Pumpkin seeds can be purchased from High Mowing Organic Seeds (http://www.highmowingseeds.com).
Jacob’s Cattle Beans
Baked beans were once a fixture of New England meals. In Maine, there is still reverence for this culinary tradition, and many Mainers continue to eat baked beans and brown bread on Saturday evenings.
The New England bean tradition, like much of our food, is descended from Algonquin, including Wampanoag, culture. Beans were a fundamentally-important crop for agrarian Native Americans in the Northeast. They grew it all across the region as part of the polyculture known as the three sisters (beans, corn and squash). One variety native to New England that has Algonquin origins is Jacob’s Cattle.
Jacob’s Cattle is a kidney bean with distinctive red and white spotting, resembling the coloring of spotted Hereford cattle. This variety, however, undoubtedly pre-dates the cattle for which it is named. These beans have a rich and fruity flavor, superior to the modern cultivar you will find in the store. They are well-suited for stews and soups.
Jacob’s Cattle, like most bush beans, is a very low-maintenance and easy-to-grow crop. Direct-sow the seeds into your garden about one inch into the soil. Plant a seed every four to six inches in rows with at least 10 inches between the rows. The beans can be picked young, while the pods are still green, or they can be harvested at maturity when they dry out, harden and develop their distinctive coloring. You can purchase this variety from many seed companies, including High Mowing Organic Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (http://www.rareseeds.com). ///
Aidan Feeney is the owner of Fog Town Farm on Nantucket and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.