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Food for Thought this Thanksgiving

By Amy Renfranz (

Article Published: Nov. 21, 2012 | Modified: Nov. 21, 2012
Food for Thought this Thanksgiving

In middle school, I learned that the settlers did not have silver buckles on their shoes. They did not wear black, and they did not call themselves ‘pilgrims.’

Photo by Heidi Kenney

I still remember my third-grade Thanksgiving pageant.

I was a pilgrim and wore all black with silver buckles on my shoes. The “Indians” were all boys and got to wear headdresses and paint on their cheeks. I wished I was an Indian.

With age came experience. With experience came knowledge. In middle school, I learned that the settlers did not have silver buckles on their shoes. They did not wear black, and they did not call themselves “pilgrims.”

In high school, I learned that not only did the Native American Wampanoags not wear headdresses, but that the holiday is now a reminder of the betrayal and bloodshed European settlers cast on their people.

In college, I learned that historians really don’t know much about the first Thanksgiving feast, if there even was an official one. Recorded instances of colonists sharing a meal with any Native American tribes after harvests are bleak.

Thank you, education, for destroying this heart-felt fantasy. I mean Santa and the Easter Bunny, sure. But Thanksgiving?

After the Thanksgiving pageant, we all got to eat a great big American meal. It was nothing like the deer, corn, roasted meat and shellfish that the settlers and Wampanoags probably shared in the 17th century, but it was good.

Thanksgiving menus have changed during the past few hundred years, as most of what modern Americans eat was not available in 1621.

Some items on your kitchen table, like the settlers themselves, made the long journey across the big ocean and are now considered as American as, well, Thanksgiving.

Much of what you will eat on Thanksgiving actually originated in South and Central America.
Turkeys, potatoes, sweet potatoes and green beans were domesticated and cultivated by the Aztecs or Incans. After being imported to Europe by Spanish conquistadors, they were brought to North America by settlers in the late 1600s.

Of course, North America did have its wild turkeys. It is probably wild turkey that made the menu of the supposed first Thanksgiving. However, wild turkey meat is very different from your Butterball. It is, naturally, darker and gamier.

Wheat, as we know it, originated in Southwest Asia and was first grown in what is now the United States by settlers in 1602. It has been made into gravy-soaking bread ever since.

There are a few native foods in our Thanksgiving collection. Squash, pumpkin and cranberry were all growing in North American soil when the settlers had their feast and had been for thousands of years.

I have no idea as to when they started turning the cranberries into gelatinous, sugary goo and pumpkin into canned, mystery glop. But both are very American.

Your table comes to life every Thanksgiving with a combination of natural and human histories. It might not look exactly like the Norman Rockwell painting (mine never does), but in it there is a lot to be thankful for.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email ( All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails.

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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