While the standard Thanksgiving meal has evolved significantly since the Pilgrims and Pokanokets slayed swans and seals for supper, nearly everything on the typical table reflects the holiday's New England roots. Turkey, corn, green beans and squash were all readily available around Plymouth (although oysters - an integral part of many contemporary Thanksgiving celebrations - weren't.) While home cooks may festoon their festive menus with pecans and marshmallows, the staple dishes make clear where Thanksgiving happened first.
So what might a modern Thanksgiving dinner include if the Pilgrims had landed somewhere else? Chris DeBarr of New Orleans' Serendipity last week answered that question for Louisianans with a five-course menu featuring duck, rice, black beans and turkey necks.
But if Thanksgiving was built around a Pacific Northwest encounter, it would likely be a highly oceanic affair. We asked Seattle's Langdon Cook, author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, to construct a menu based on what European settlers and Duwamish tribal members in our region might have brought to a shared table. Follow the links to recipes and cooking tips on Cook's blog.
"Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday when the Denny Party landed on Alki on November 13, 1851, but it's not difficult to imagine what a feast with the local tribe, the Duwamish, might have included. Elliott Bay and the surrounding country was teeming with fish, waterfowl, elk, deer, and countless other foods. Smoked salmon would have been a year-round staple. However, the foundation of freshly foraged ingredients--then and today--was shellfish. According to Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, the youngest member of the pioneering Denny Party, infant Rolland Denny, was suckled through malnutrition that first winter with clam juice.
By late fall the many varieties of oysters, clams, mussels, and crabs are putting fat back in the shell after the summer spawn. They're easily gathered at low tide and add a decidedly Northwest point of view to any celebratory meal.
I always begin my holiday feasts with a round of oysters and bubbly. These days the oysters you're likely to find on Puget Sound tidal flats are non-native Pacifics rather than our homegrown Olympias, and signs posted by the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife will warn you to not eat raw shellfish. If you're worried, give your oysters a quick batter and pan-fry and serve with a dab of hot sauce. Me, I like my oysters naked, served with a spare mignonette, and I've never had a problem.
If you don't mind a raucous, messy beginning to the meal, put out a platter of Dungeness crabs in the shell. This is a crowd-pleaser that evokes home any time of year."
"A simple showstopper to kick off the sit-down portion of the meal is a locally foraged Shellfish Stew. You can find the recipe in Fat of the Land. Based on a recipe by Marcella Hazan, it uses clams, mussels, scallops, and squid (which you can jig for at night off the Seattle Public Fishing Pier) in a tomato-wine broth. Don't forget a toasted hunk of good, crusty bread to sop up the juices."
"There's scant evidence that Native Americans or early European Americans made much use of wild mushrooms. Later waves of immigrants would bring morel culture with them, and Italian Americans on the West Coast have been harvesting porcini for a century, but those first Denny dinners probably didn't include fungi on the menu. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy this signature fall food of the Pacific Northwest. My new favorite recipe, stolen from Sitka & Spruce, is a gratin of wild mushrooms and root vegetables. Creamy with mascarpone and crunchy with a layer of breadcrumbs on top, serve with a defibrillator.
By late November, the Seattle mushroom hunter shifts focus from chanterelles and porcini to hardier, cold-tolerant species such as yellowfeet and hedgehogs. Wild mushrooms have all kinds of uses in a Thanksgiving meal: in stuffing, soups, side dishes, and appetizers such as a Yellowfoot Crostini or a savory Parfait of Hedgehogs and Wheatberries."
"Another wild ingredient available this time of year is the evergreen huckleberry, the last of our many huckleberries to ripen and one of the sweetest and most easily gathered. Look for them in late fall in the lowland forests of Western Washington, and look for a recipe in Fat of the Land. A huckleberry pie or cobbler is the perfect way to conclude a celebration of our region's bounty."