Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 28, 2008

Trivia and tradition

When my home and garden magazines tempt me with new holiday recipes, I usually resist. Husband Art and daughter Katie are quite the traditionalists and, since Art cooks the bulk of our Thanksgiving meal, I go along with the old standbys to keep the peace - and because tradition is fun.

On the few occasions when I've experimented with new recipes for our Turkey Day meal, they haven't turned out well. One example that comes to mind is the year I tried mixing white potatoes and sweet potatoes. The recipe called for cooking and mashing the two potatoes separately, putting the white potatoes onto a cookie sheet as a base, "piping" sweet potatoes on top and then baking them. Although the concoction tasted OK, Art dubbed it "Gloria's cow pie recipe." Needless to say, I haven't tried that again, although we have had many laughs reflecting on the whole affair..

In our family's case, the tradition includes turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green-bean casserole, cranberries and pumpkin pie. Recently I began to wonder why these foods have become associated with America's big November feast. So I thought I'd take a look at where they came from.

I knew that turkeys are native to North America, but I learned a couple of things from a quick Internet search - that the fleshy protuberance that hangs from the top of the turkey's beak is called a snood and that the name given to a group of turkeys is a rafter, although they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a gobble or flock.

I also knew that potatoes originated in the highlands of South America, where they've been consumed for more than 8,000 years. I learned that while visiting my sister in Bolivia where dozens of potato species are native to the Andean highlands. When I checked the Web site of the International Potato Center near Lima, Peru, I discovered that a single medium-sized potato contains about half the daily adult requirement of vitamin C, something mothers and doctors advise us to consume more of as cold season approaches.

Sweet potatoes are native to the tropical parts of South America and were domesticated there at least 5,000 years ago. Art usually just cooks a can of them on the stove top, unlike Mom, who put marshmallows on top and baked them.

I didn't know where marshmallows came from until Art looked it up awhile back. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a marshmallow is: "1: a pink-flowered European perennial herb (Althaea officinalis) of the mallow family that is naturalized in the eastern U.S. and has a mucilaginous root sometimes used in confectionery and in medicine; 2: a confection made from the root of the marshmallow or from corn syrup, sugar, albumen, and gelatin beaten to a light spongy consistency."

Somehow I feel better knowing that modern marshmallows are made with gelatin instead of the "mucilaginous" (jelly-like) root.

Art has his own variation on the "classic" green-bean casserole, invented in 1955 by the Campbell Soup Company test kitchen under the leadership of Dorcas Reilly. The goal was to come up with simple recipes to promote the use and increased purchase of the company's products. The recipe calls for cream of mushroom soup, green beans and French fried onions. Art's recipe calls for cashews instead of the onions and that substitution has been a huge hit. Art's green-bean casserole is the first thing daughter Mariya requests when she comes home for Thanksgiving.

Another family favorite is cranberries, but not the cranberry "jelly" that plops out of a can. Oh, no, our cranberries must be the real thing. Maybe that's because Art's native state of Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries.

The name cranberry comes from "craneberry." Early European settlers in America thought the flowers' light-pink petals resembled the head and bill of a crane. Over time, the name was shortened to cranberry. Native Americans were the first to use cranberries as food, calling the red berries Sassamanash. Natives may have introduced cranberries to starving English settlers in Massachusetts.

Our traditional dessert is usually pumpkin pie and, when sister-in-law Linda is present, pumpkin bread. The origin of pumpkins is not known, although they are thought to have originated in North America. The oldest evidence - pumpkin-related seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 B.C. - were found in Mexico.

So now, when our family and friends gather for our Thanksgiving feast, we can serve up a heaping helping of trivia as well as all the traditional foods!

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