As we know, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving to commemorate their successful harvest in the New World and to thank the neighboring Indians who had helped them survive a difficult first year. In celebration, the Pilgrims and Indians feasted on roast duck, roast goose, venison, clams, eel, leeks, watercress, wheat and corn breads, wild plums, homemade wine and turkey.
My family has celebrated Thanksgiving in many ways—the most memorable were the ones when we took the cooked turkey with us in our RV and headed to the dry deserts in California. Sometimes we simply grilled Cornish game hens over the hot coals, and another time some of our group dug a hole and wrapped the bird in burlap and put it into an old washing machine tub and packed hot coals around it. That took the whole night. And then there were those holidays when we stayed home and put the turkey into the Weber and cooked it on the patio.
Our menu was usually the same—yams, mashed potatoes and gravy, baked corn, winter squash, peas with onions, pickled fruit, and pie—ah yes, there was pumpkin pie, mince pie, and sometimes an apple or a pear pie.
The colonists quickly came to depend on corn as a vital staple. It was not uncommon for them to eat it in some form three times a day. The New Englanders learned from the Indians, and one dish they speedily adopted was succotash, which is very popular today in many Thanksgiving menus.
Succotash is a cooked combination of fresh corn and lima beans. The name comes from the language of the American Indian tribe that lived in the Northeast when the first English settlers arrived. Succotash derives from msickquatash, the Narragansett Indian word for “boiled whole kernels of corn.”
Early versions of succotash also contained various meats and winter vegetables. Plymouth succotash, which commemorated the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, incorporated fowl, corned beef, turnips and potatoes. Other recipes called for salt pork, while the Indians used bear fat to give it extra flavor.
No county fair dinner was complete without succotash, and no American cookbook is complete without a recipe for this native dish that combines two vegetables just as the Indians grew them. The Indians introduced white settlers to corn and showed them that by planting in rows the cornstalks could serve as poles for the beans to grow on.
Here’s an old-time recipe for the traditional succotash:
Three hours before mealtime put 1 cup of dried lima beans and 1 cup of dried corn in separate bowls, wash, and drain. Fill the bowls with boiling water, stir, then cover them with plates. Let stand until water is absorbed, about two hours. If beans are still not tender, transfer them to saucepan and simmer about 20 minutes, adding water if needed. Add corn and quickly cook away any remaining liquid. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and coat vegetables well; add 1/4 cup of cream and cook until hot. Salt and pepper to taste. Serves six.
I have acquired so many recipes for succotash—herbed succotash, Southwestern succotash, Mexican succotash, Southern succotash with rice, balsamic succotash, succotash and goat cheese quiche, succotash with cream, succotash with chicken, and several succotash salads. Here’s my favorite:
Fry 1/4 pound of bacon, chopped until crisp. Strip kernels from 4 ears of corn and add to skillet.
Add 2 tomatoes, cut in wedges, 1 chopped onion, a half-pound package of frozen lima beans that have been thawed, and 1 green pepper, cut in strips. Add enough water to prevent vegetables from sticking and simmer until beans and corn are tender. Salt to taste. Serves 4.
Here’s another succotash recipe:
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 bunch of scallions, chopped
1 (10-oz. pkg.) of frozen baby limas
2 cups of corn kernels
1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
1/2 cup of heavy cream
Heat butter in skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook scallions, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add beans and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add corn, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Add cream and cook, stirring, until cream is simmering and vegetables are tender, about 3 minutes. Serves 4.
And here’s one more:
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup of baby lima beans
1/3 cup of chicken stock
1 cup of corn kernels
1/2 cup of cubed zucchini
1/2 cup of cubed yellow squash
1/4 cup of diced red peppers
1/4 cup of buttermilk
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh basil or parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
In saucepan, heat oil over moderate heat. Add onion and sauté, stirring, until softened but not brown. Stir in lima beans and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cover pan and simmer 5-6 minutes or until almost tender.
Add all vegetables and return to a boil. Cover and simmer 3 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
Stir in buttermilk and cook about 1 minute longer, until heated through. Remove from heat and add basil, salt and pepper. Serves 4.
November sunshine is gentle and dreamy and brief. It has an elusive quality about it—a wonderful time to take off somewhere in your RV and celebrate Thanksgiving in the out-of-doors, as it was done in the very beginning.
“Autumn is the Sabbath of the seasons. Then nature, her summer work accomplished, puts on her richest, most colorful garments and rejoices with man in the harvest festivals.” —author unknown
This is the time of year when we do indeed rejoice in the harvest festivals, and the most resplendent autumn festival of all is Thanksgiving.
HINT OF THE MONTH: If you have no cream, substitute undiluted evaporated milk. Or plop two tablespoons of butter in a measuring cup and add milk to the one-cup line.
Marian Platt is a food writer who lives in Sequim, Washington.