Macomb, IL – In a couple of days friends and family all over the United States will congregate to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Some will gather around elaborately set tables containing family heirlooms of sterling silver, fine linen, bone china, and crystal. Others will meet around card tables that have been temporarily set up in the garage to accommodate guests from out of town. Still others of us will share our Thanksgiving meal with strangers in soup kitchens.
We all have something to be thankful for and regardless of the physical setting; most of our tables will have a few foods in common. Grain will be one of them.
Americans are not the first people to celebrate Thanksgiving. In the autumn of each year ancient Greeks gathered to enjoy a three-day fete to honor Demeter, the "earth mother." Demeter, goddess of the harvest, also controlled the seasons, and because of that she was capable of destroying all life on earth.
Her Roman counterpart, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and grain was adopted in 496 BC during a devastating famine. Both Demeter and Ceres are often shown carrying sheathes of grain in their arms.
In the United States corn, cranberries and turkey were probably on the first Thanksgiving table in the autumn of 1621 when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians celebrated the colony's first successful harvest. The grain on their table was corn, a crop indigenous to the Americas.
The Wampanoag Indians also taught the Pilgrims to make a cranberry sauce called ibimi, which means "bitter berry." The colonists' renamed ibimi calling it "crane-berry," because when its flowers dipped down they resembled the long-necked bird called the crane that also nested in the bogs where the berries grew.
I will be celebrating Thanksgiving at my parent's farm in southern Ohio. Turkey (organically and sustainably raised by our Amish neighbors), corn, and cranberries will be on our dinner table.
In addition to these staples will be a few more items that reflect the cultural heritage of my family. One dish that appears only at Thanksgiving is oyster dressing. I love oysters, but don't eat them often because we live so far from the coastal waters where they are harvested. As a small child I remember asking my Meme why we only ate oysters at Thanksgiving. Her explanation included references to cold coastal waters; trains containing blocks of ice travelling from Louisiana & New York to Chillicothe, Ohio; and the high cost of this delicate food.
In hindsight, her explanation was an elaborate lesson in food seasonality & safety, transportation, and foods that are considered decadent.
Another dish that will be on our table will be variation on plum pudding. This recipe came over from the old country with the German part of my family, the Keims. The recipe has been handed down for generations and my dad remembers seeing his great aunt Tante (who also cheated at gin rummy) make the dessert.
In and of itself the pudding is not something that is remotely pleasant to eat. It contains lots of dried fruit, whole grains and animal fat. In fact, it is about as flavorful as sawdust. But, we all eat it every year topped with a secret sauce containing butter, raw eggs, and sugar that would make even a paper plate a culinary masterpiece. We continue to make and eat these foods because they are part of our family's cultural tradition.
I want to leave you with a final cultural tradition, unique to the McIlvaine clan. Penned by the same great aunt, this small poem recited to the tune of my "Country tis of Thee" is sung at the beginning of every Thanksgiving gathering by generations young and old:
"My turkey tis of thee
Sweet bird of liberty
Of thee I sing
I love thy breasts and wings
Thy thighs and other things
My heart with rapture sings
When thee I see."