Across virtually every corner of Native American culture “thanksgiving” festivals are celebrated not only at harvest time, but throughout the year; a manifestation of the idea that all our wants are supplied by the spiritual God of this earth. Nowhere was this more firmly established than among the Algonquian and Iroquoian people of the northeast where harvests from gardens, the forests and the sea were commemorated in days of prayers and rites of renewal – if not by entire villages, by individual families. Nearly every food tradition practiced in today’s Thanksgiving feasts is a reflection of something learned from the coastal people of Samoset in 1621.
Each year as I lift the first slice from my still-warm-from-the-oven Wampanoag cranberry pie I revisit in my mind the beautiful story of the ice-bound Indian youth saved from death by the lovely white bird dropping strange never-seen-before red berries to him like gifts from the winter sky. When I lift a fillet of Pacific salmon, glazed with wild honey and redolent of alder smoke after six hours in my smoker, I think of my Aleut niece and the generations of sea-bound island traditions which speak to her and her modern-day family – and to me.
I enlisted in the United States Air Force less than three years after it was created out of what had been the U.S. Army Air Forces (and before that the Army Air Corps.) At that time a (sometimes painful) marriage of cultures was going on. The old timers took pride in clinging to their olive drab, army-style uniforms along with other less-obvious habits of dress and behavior. I was among the first training camp graduates to be issued only the new blue uniforms and a new sense of pride in identity. (I wouldn’t have worn an “old” OD uniform even if invited to do so!) I use this as an introduction to the subject of “Thanksgiving Day mess hall menus”. It took me a while to notice that wherever I happened to be both in the “states” and overseas at holiday times, we would be served sweet potato pie, not pumpkin pie. So I learned to like sweet potato pie – and will be making my own this year. But why? Why was this an old “Air Corps” tradition?
In the 1930s and all during WWII, Army aviation training activities were centered in the South where flying conditions were favorable. The “sweet potato” was brought to the U.S. with African slaves and became a strong African-American food favorite, and one much preferred over pumpkin in pie-making time. I believe that the “old school” mess sergeants of that era (and NCOs have long been the heart-and-soul of continuity in military customs around the world) passed this one along.
I also believe that of all our seasonal holidays, Thanksgiving is the most powerful celebration of American traditions and – along with Christmas – the most family-centered. It is a natural “avenue” for the passing-along of family tradition and family history. For those of us who have a sense of our generational responsibilities as parents and grandparents to do something more important than carving a turkey and grating orange rind into grandma’s cranberry relish, this is a time to put our signature on a lesson of love and values.
As I stand today as the senior living representative of four generations of our united family “tree”, I was gladdened to learn that a 13-year-old great-grand-daughter informed her mother that they just could not leave on a family vacation unless they had Thanksgiving first.
And one more reminder: For those courageous 103 seekers-of-freedom who dared the waters of a mighty ocean to get here, Thanksgiving was a “thank you” to their God.
Wampanoag Cranberry Pie