Before Thanksgiving

Harvest Celebrations Across the USA

Slow Food Explores Regional Food Traditions


By Ken Albala, Professor of History, University of the Pacific

Although Thanksgiving was instituted as an official holiday in the U.S. in 1863, the original celebration in the 17th century among the pilgrims at Plymouth has roots in the Old Testament. Their intention was to replace medieval saint’s days (which they considered pagan) with biblically warranted festivals, many of which they found in the Torah.

Among the ancient Hebrews, there were days of fasting and penitence as well as days of thanksgiving, both for special occasions as well as harvest celebrations. Sukkot is one of these, which falls between late September and late October. During the week-long festival, a temporary structure is set up outside, covered in leaves. Everyone then eats there (and, sometimes, they even sleep there). The rituals involve blessings over the luvav – palm fronds and myrtle bound with willow and the etrog, a citron. Of course, there is also feasting upon the fall harvest.

When Jewish communities arrived in the U.S. and then made their way Westward, they organized what is regarded as the oldest congregation in California in 1849, made up largely of merchants serving the gold rush miners from the furthest inland port town of Stockton. Little did anyone suspect in the 19th century that official “American Thanksgiving” was a long lost cousin of the ancient Hebrew thanksgiving celebrations celebrated among these settlers, including Sukkot.

In 1924, The Ladies of Temple Israel published “The Stockton Community Cookbook” which includes these recipes. They reflect the Yiddish origins of the community and both are perfect for cool weather and our modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations.

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What’s on the Table

more recipes: KrepchenSweet and Sour Cabbage


By Liko Hoe, Hawaiian Studies Assistant Professor, Windward Community College, Kaneohe

As the dry summer season gives way to the wet season, Hawaiians celebrate the yearly festival called the Makahiki. The Makahiki is an intricate cycle of ritual that involves all the different parts of Hawaiian society – from the makaʻainana (“common farmer”) to the aliʻi nui (“high chief”) and every one in between.

Food or ʻai is central to all of Hawaiian society. In the Hawaiian language, the word ʻAikapu (“Food Laws”) is used to describe the rules that govern society in general. The act of eating is the foundational act of all the people and the universe.

In the Makahiki festival, Hawaiians recognize the divine source of the food that sustains us. Lono is the god of the Makahiki season and has many kinolau (“embodied forms”). One of the most significant of his forms during the festival season is the southern storms, and the clouds and rains that come with them. These major water-carrying systems give life to the land and, therefore, to the people. Another form of Lono, a carved image, is carried on a circuit around the island and is presented with taxes from each valley district in recognition of Lonoʻs authority. The makaʻainana and the aliʻi alike follow the procession that takes about a month and celebrate with hula, games, and food.

Some of the festival foods that were prepared and eaten were kūlolo and pepeieʻe. Kūlolo is still eaten in Hawaiʻi today for special occasions and is made out of ground taro, coconut milk and some kind of sweetener. Pepeieʻe, less common today, is made out of over ripe breadfruit or banana that is mixed with coconut milk and baked in the imu (“underground oven”). These would be the traditional equivalents of our cotton candy and fried carnival foods, basically the fattest and sweetest things around.

Towards the end of the Makahiki season, there is a traditional ritual that foretells the abundance of food in the coming year. This ritual involves a wide-eyed net that is stretched out and filled with food. The priests that are holding the net then shake the net and carefully observe the food that passes through. The food that falls through represents the availability of food for the coming year until the next Makahiki season. This ritual is a reference to a story from Hawaiian tradition of a chief named Makaliʻi, who took up all of the food on earth and placed it in a net suspended in the stars. It is the rat that we have to thank for climbing up into the sky and gnawing through the netting so that food could fall back down to earth.

After the Christianization of Hawaiʻi in the 19th century, many of the traditional Hawaiian festivities ceased and were replaced with the holiday season that many are familiar with. However, since the 1970s, significant parts of Hawaiian culture and society have enjoyed a revitalization that continues today. Makahiki is increasingly becoming a more regular part of our contemporary holiday cycle. Hopefully, the Makahiki and festivals like it will continue to highlight the prominence of food and its importance to our lives.

Making Kulolo with Uncle Val [video]

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What’s on the Table

recipe: Kulolo

Midwest (Wisconsin)

By Deanna House, cookbook author and educator

Although I have spent most of my adult life in southwest Michigan, my growing up years in the 1940s and 1950s found me on a family farm in southern Wisconsin. It was in this rural setting that I was introduced to a plentiful supply of home grown foods deliciously prepared by my mother, almost exactly as they had been prepared by generations before her.

When I joined a 4-H club at the age of 10, my first and favorite project was in the area of food preparation. I did much of the family baking and exhibited at the annual 4-H Fair.

I soon learned that many recipes for baked goods called for an ingredient referred to as “nut meats.” This actually meant walnuts or pecans, but novice bakers often could be found searching for nutmeats near meat cases at grocery stores.

Josiah T Wright ResidenceIn the Midwest, black walnut trees produced treasured nuts that were often coveted by bakers. The first frost in autumn loosened the nuts from the trees. These green-husked covered nuts dropped from the trees and were gathered and dried. Next came the very labor-intensive task of removing the husks and cracking the hard shelled black nuts open with a hammer.

In our family, my maternal grandfather was the champion black walnut cracker. He knew just how to hit each nut resulting in large pieces of nuts perfect for baking. These treasured black walnuts have a wonderful earthy flavor.

One of the recipes I want to share is my maternal grandmother’s heirloom Applesauce Cake recipe that features black walnuts. My family members have baked it for over 100 years. At holiday time, my mother would often add candied fruit or frost the loaves with a rich butter cream frosting.

For as long as I can remember, winter squash has graced our Thanksgiving table. The vibrant yellow pulp of butternut or buttercup squash holds its shape beautifully and is full of flavor. Seasoned with a bit of butter and salt, it is the autumn vegetable of choice for many Midwest diners.

Actually the baking of winter squash is more of a “plan” than a recipe. Follow these easy directions for perfect squash every time.

When cool weather arrives here in the Midwest, it is time to begin thinking about fresh cranberry recipes. After all, this popular bright red fruit is native to North America and has been featured in harvest celebration menus for years.

My first memory of a recipe using fresh cranberries was this uncooked cranberry relish. We ground the cranberries using a hand meat grinder that had a clamp that was attached to a breadboard or kitchen table. When cranberry juice dripped all over the floor, we quickly solved the problem by freezing the berries before grinding or chopping.

Photo: The Rock County home of farmer Josiah T. Wright, near Janesville, Wisconsin
Photo courtesy of J. R. Porter

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What’s on the Table

more recipes: Applesauce CakeWinter SquashCranberry Relish

Northeast (Massachusetts)

By John Forti, co-founder of Slow Food Seacoast (NH/MA/ME), co-leader of the New England Ark of Taste regional committee for Slow Food USA and vice chair of the Herb Society of America NE. He is the Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke and previously served for 15 years as the Director of Horticulture for Plimoth Plantation Museum.

Each year, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to reconnect with a cultural inheritance of nearly forgotten foods. The origins of the holiday teach us that even across cultural divides, we can successfully come together around a table to enjoy the things we share in common.

Perhaps more than any other holiday, the traditional foods of Thanksgiving remind us that our communities have endured the ages, thanks to agriculture.

Plimoth Plantation Harvest CelebrationThe harvest feast first celebrated in 1621 Plymouth brought together the Wampanoag tribe and those we have come to know as Pilgrims. Having arrived in the new world without adequate provisions, the Pilgrims gathered to share a feast and celebrate their first successful harvest.

They invited the Wampanoag who taught them how to cultivate the beans, corn and squash that sustained them year-round. In addition to these crops, they also prepared wild fowl, venison, root crops and the seasonal produce known to grace that harvest table. Centuries later, this early New England harvest festival was adapted to the 19th century palate, and repurposed as a national holiday intended to reunite a nation torn apart by Civil War.

Since that time, Thanksgiving has served as a cultural reminder to appreciate a time when we were content with simpler pleasures. As a result, Thanksgiving has remained one of our least commercial, and most family-centered holidays. It encourages us to take inspiration from the melding of two traditional diets and our nation’s first multi-cultural locavore feast.

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What’s on the Table

more recipes: NasaumpSobahegBoiled BreadCurd FrittersSampStewed Pompion


By Gary Nabhan, Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and founder of “Renewing America’s Food Traditions”

“Makah spoken history tells the story of ancient times when the Makah People lived in a world that revolved around the sea and land. Yet it never lets one forget the great cultural changes that brought the tribe to where it is today, a sovereign nation in its traditional homeland. Makah tribal members live both on and off the reservation and throughout the world practicing an intertwined contemporary and native culture. The Makah, both past and present, have demonstrated their ability to adapt, survive and flourish.”
Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula, by the Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Advisory Committee

Located in the most northwesterly point of the lower 48 states, on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the Makah Nation is estimated to be more than 3,500 years old. Much of their known history comes from oral traditions passed down through the generations. Like many First Nation and indigenous peoples, they used nearly all of what they took from the land and sea. Their feasts included various fish and marine mammals, elk, deer, berries and a variety of plants.

According to tribal lore, one staple of the Makah diet for the last 200 years has been the Ozette Potato – named after one of their five villages located around Neah Bay.

Unlike most potatoes, the Makah Ozette variety came directly from South America to Neah Bay, where Spaniards were attempting to stake out territory along the northern Pacific coast in the late 1700s. When they established a fort at Neah Bay in the spring of 1791, they planted a garden that surely included potatoes they had brought directly from South America via Mexico.

The spuds the Spanish had planted in their summer garden persisted and soon went feral after the fort was abandoned that winter. Legend has it that the Makah Ozette potato was discovered and adopted by women of the Makah Nation when they were out foraging in 1792. Unbeknownst to anyone outside of their culture, for the next two centuries Makah women took on the role of serving as the sole stewards of their newly found tuber crop, secretly cultivating the potato in modest gardens on the rainforest edge.

The Makah Ozette has remained on the Olympic Peninsula because the Makah people cherish its distinctive flavor. In doing so, the Makah have protected a rare example of a truly local potato. The knobby fingerling potato with its rich, creamy texture may be unusual to most of us, but it is an example of the incredible variety of shapes, colors and tastes found in South American potatoes.

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What’s on the Table

recipe: Crab Hash with Makah Ozette Potatoes

Southeast (Virginia)

By Leni Sorensen, Ph.D., culinary historian, writer, consultant, teacher of Rural Life Skills

During the Jeffersonian Era in Virginia, as the dark days of late fall and early winter closed in, people would begin to harvest fall vegetables and meats for the table. The wealthiest families already ate a rich and varied menu year-round, while the middling planters and small farmers seem to have followed suit when possible, but with no particular date or named holiday in mind. Thus, there was no official day of thanksgiving.

However, a special menu might be scheduled when the wild game became plentiful – water fowl, venison, quail, wild turkeys, grouse, ptarmigans, or partridge. Or a feast within the slave quarter could mark the end of the corn harvest with the shucking of the ears and storage in the barn.

The beginning of the butchering season promised the annual bounty of hams and smoked meats along with the protein rich offals commonly prepared as souse, and other kinds of pickled pig parts. Mincemeat of pork feet, venison, or beef was a popular way for the prosperous to combine the meat harvest with imported luxuries such as spices and spirits.

For plantation masters, middling planters, and small farmers, the late fall meant reaping the financial profits from a good harvest. For the enslaved, it meant some ease from the long hot days of summer labor and time to gather foods from their gardens and poultry yards to supplement the standard rations (most usually one peck of cornmeal and two to three pounds of salt pork a week for a full adult laborer). This additional food supply was put away for the winter months.

Depending on where one lived, the fall harvest could include peanuts, corn, beef, wild turkey, pork, pumpkins, persimmons, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, fall greens (mustard, turnip, watercress), oysters – and an astounding variety of orchard fruits, especially apples. Crops such as parsnips and carrots could remain in the ground to be harvested throughout the winter; while cabbages were pulled whole to be stored in cold cellars along with potatoes and beets.

In such a large state, there was considerable regional variety. In those days Virginia ranged from the balmy Tidewater to the mountains of Appalachia ending all the way in the western woodlands bordered by the Ohio River.

Mary Randolph, author of the most famous cookbook of the era, did not mention a particular harvest festival but her vegetables and meats would have always been local and seasonal. She and her enslaved cooks understood how to present a menu that represented the best of any season. And, of course, religious tradition taught all people to be grateful for the foods they raised and hunted.

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What’s on the Table

more recipes: ParsnipsMincemeat Pie FillingCabbage A-La-Creme


By Marilyn Noble, board chair of Slow Food Denver and co-chair of the Southwest/Mountain regional committee for Slow Food USA. She is the author of “Southwest Comfort Food: Slow and Savory” and “The Essential Southwest Cookbook,” and serves as Communications Director for the American Grassfed Association.

Water is a precious and increasingly scarce resource in the Western U.S., but in the days before climate change and rampant population growth, the small indigenous tribes of people who inhabited the desert were able to enjoy a varied and plentiful diet in the verdant river valleys of the West.

Not many people know that the area with the longest known history of agriculture in the U.S. lies not on the East Coast or in the Midwest, but in the Santa Cruz River valley of Southern Arizona. The fertile floodplain of the Santa Cruz, which winds from headwaters east of Patagonia into Mexico and then north through what is now downtown Tucson, was originally inhabited by hunter-gatherers and then later by indigenous people who built the first series of irrigation canals in North America, around 1200 B.C. Those early farmers cultivated beans and maize, but they also foraged for native desert foods, including prickly pear and saguaro fruit, cholla buds, and mesquite pods, which they ground into flour. Their descendants continue those food traditions to this day.

Spanish explorers and missionaries came to the valley in the late 1600s, bringing with them figs, olives, pomegranates, quince and livestock. In 1775, the Presidio de Tucson was established, and the valley has been home to immigrants from other cultures ever since. Tucson’s modern-day Mission Garden project is re-creating a garden and orchard on the site of the original Spanish Colonial walled garden of the Mission San Augustin, and will eventually incorporate areas representing the cultural diversity of early agriculture and the European and Asian settlers who came later.

Unlike other parts of the country that experience four distinct seasons, harvest time in the desert runs from late spring throughout the summer and into late fall. During Tucson’s Presidio period, from the late 1700s to the middle of the 19th century, residents celebrated both Spanish feast days and the traditional harvest rituals of the indigenous people. This penchant for festivals has extended into modern-day Tucson. You can find some sort of food, music, or cultural festival going on many weekends of the year.

Modern Southwest cooking is influenced by native traditions, as well as by the foodways of the people who have come to call the desert home. It is an enticing and sensory mélange of flavors, aromas, and techniques that combine to create a distinctive cuisine reflective of the many cultures that have embraced desert life.

Photos courtesy of Robin Stancliffe

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What’s on the Table

more recipes: Leg of LambApple CompoteTamales

The Origins of Thanksgiving

Over the centuries, Thanksgiving has become a special day to share a home-cooked meal with loved ones and an offering of thanks for our blessings. In many ways, Thanksgiving is the quintessential “Slow Food” holiday. And yet, as many of us know, Thanksgiving has a complicated and controversial past. As we celebrate with family and friends, it’s worth remembering the complexity and suffering from which our modern holiday of love, food and family was born.

Many of us are familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving: Pilgrims celebrated a successful harvest after a few years of starvation and struggle together with friends from the Wampanoag Nation. That harvest was made possible thanks to the knowledge, seeds and traditional farming practices that the Native Americans shared with the newly arrived settlers.

Native CornWhat many of us don’t know is the story that followed in the intervening years between that celebration and the holiday of family, food and giving that many of us are familiar with today. Following nearly two decades of peace, newly arrived Europeans began massacres of native peoples across the northeast over issues of land rights and ownership. (These killings were widely condemned by the original Pilgrims – many of whom were expelled from the society for voicing their opposition).

After one particularly successful massacre in what is now Connecticut, settlers gathered for a feast of “thanksgiving” – giving thanks for their victory over the native peoples. This is the tragic story of the second Thanksgiving. In subsequent years, as the killings across the northeast took on a frenzy, settlers held feasts of thanksgiving after each successful slaughter. By many accounts, George Washington brought order by declaring one day to be celebrated across the nation as “Thanksgiving Day.” Thanksgiving then became an official state holiday during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln declared that it would fall on the fourth Thursday of every November.

Though none of us alive today took part in these atrocities, it is important to know the full context of the holiday in order to understand why some people find it difficult to celebrate. It is through this awareness that we bring thoughtfulness and true thanksgiving to our enjoyment.

About this Project
The purpose of this project is to celebrate the diversity of food cultures and harvest traditions that are rooted in the land and people across the United States. We acknowledge that we were only able to highlight a small sample of the rich variety available.

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Learn more about the original Thanksgiving:

Learn more about some of the many native-led projects to save endangered foods and traditions:

Giving Thanks

For the earth, air, fire and water;
For the seasons, and the directions of the compass;
For the phases of our lives, and those that came before us;
For those who did not pave the way, but instead, cultivated it;
For those that saved the seeds of a better future,
And acted as stewards of our resources and inheritance,
A legacy of waterways, woodlands, fields and farms.

An inheritance of seasonal observations, life skills, holiday customs, recipes for nourishing foods,
deep connections and life passages that anchor us in a sense of place, stewardship and community.
A celebration in what we have learned thus far, and where we are going.

So I offer this humble prayer to the Native and the immigrant.
For the seacoast and the soil, the seeds and roots,
and the farmers who renew tradition with each passing season.
For the farmers market and the holiday table, our family and friends,
and the kinship that comes from celebrating renewal for our changing landscape and nature!

By John Forti, Slow Food state governor for Massachusetts and the Horticulture Director for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. You can find him at or posting as The Heirloom Gardener - John Forti on Facebook.