Ohio’s pioneers feasted on much different table fare at Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Day dinners on the Ohio frontier were obviously much different than those we enjoy today. The earliest settlers in those pre-statehood days couldn’t rely on farm-raised staples such as beef, flour, and corn. Fortunately for them, the land offered a rich abundance of natural foods, which they gratefully set upon their tables during the national day of thanks giving.
These foods from the wild were particularly important as pioneers had to wait until they could clear land for crops, including corn, squash and other vegetables. Even then, wild edibles such as nuts, roots, tubers and berries often accompanied the wild game taken from Ohio’s forests, fields and streams.
As we continue this long-held November tradition, it would be appropriate to consider the culinary hardships faced by early Ohioans especially as we shop our convenient supermarket aisles for boxes of stuffing mix and jars of ready-made gravy.
Relying on their resourcefulness and learning from Native Americans, the settlers made do with whatever was on hand. If the frontier didn’t offer a favorite food they had known back east, settlers often found a local stand-in.
A hot loaf of fresh bread was as popular then as it is today, but processed flour was hard to come by. Following the example of the Indians, our ancestors found a tasty substitute in the shagbark hickory nut, which was ground into flour for breads and cakes. As the nuts fell in late September and October, the settlers competed with local wildlife as they gathered this valuable food source.
Another popular food item, the potato, could be just as scarce as flour. Great, great, great grandma Caroline, however, likely found a fine substitute in the Jerusalem artichoke, which could be boiled or mashed. This wild starchy tuber isn’t really an artichoke, but rather a member of the sunflower family. Above ground, the plant has a familiar bright yellow face, about three inches in diameter. Beneath the soil, the potassium-rich tubers grow in a manner similar to that of the potato.
For the meal’s main course, little has changed, since wild turkey was plentiful in Ohio’s woodlands. However, if a turkey could not be harvested, other wild game, such as quail, duck, deer or rabbit were graciously accepted.
Yet all of these foods would have been rather bland without some spices. Salt was highly prized both as a seasoning and preservative. Luckily, Ohio did have several salt springs, and as long as one could afford it, salt could be found in the pantry. Another natural seasoning was found in the berries of the spicebush. These were gathered, dried and ground, then used in all manner of cooking. The leaves and twigs of this versatile bush were also used to make tea.
White sugar was nearly nonexistent on the “western” frontier, as Ohio was then known. But again, copying the Indians, settlers tapped maple trees for their sap, which was boiled down to make sugar and syrup. These natural byproducts had many uses, including sweeteners in tea and cake baking. For a special treat on cold, snowy days, children sometimes drizzled warm maple syrup onto snow, so that it hardened into a chewy confection known as “jack wax.”
Other naturally tasty treats were gathered earlier in the year and preserved for the winter. Berries of all kinds, including black raspberries and elderberries were made into jams. Apples were cored and sliced into thin rings, then strung on a piece of twine to dry. These could later be used to garnish a special dish or in baking.
More than four score and seven years have passed since our country celebrated its first Thanksgiving. As we honor this long-held tradition with another day of feasting, let’s remember to give thanks for the wide availability and diversity of foods before us even if that includes Aunt Millie’s infamous lima bean casserole!