Celebrating Indigenous Foods of the Americas for Thanksgiving

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

                                                  -Albert Einstein

Hubbard Squash Turkey with corn and peppers

Plant foods from the Americas have contributed to approximately three quarters of the food diversity we enjoy today globally. Indigenous foods from North and South America have varied our diets to an astonishing degree throughout the world. Would Italians have such a refined, delicious cuisine if they did not grow and develop tomato recipes? What would happen to the Irish without their New World staple food, potatoes? (it happened once with dire results during the Irish potato famine). And would Indian curries without hot peppers be as much fun to eat? Can you imagine eating desserts if there were no chocolate or vanilla? These foods, among many others from the Americas, have influenced and changed world cuisine. Foods indigenous to the Americas have been a catalyst in the development of new classic recipes that are now vital to cultures around the world and loved by many.

Cornhusk Native American Figures from the U.S. North & Northeast

Indian tribes in the Americas are as diverse as many of the foods they gathered, grew, and hunted. They survived for thousands of years eating what was locally available to them given their climate and terrain. They were masters at observing and giving thanks to what nature offered and had ceremonies to ensure a good harvest. Everything they ate and grew was treated with reverence to the earth and provider. They had enormous respect for the soil and used every part of what they ate or grew in creative and practical ways. All parts of the plant or animal were used, and they composted and recycled to enrich the soil which was sacred to them.

Native American Kachina figures from the U.S. Southwest

The Americas historically have included a wide range of people, languages, and growing conditions. The different tribes were able to adapt to their specific environment and develop their unique cultures and innovative agricultural techniques that are sustainable to the earth. Unfortunately, when the Europeans and others came to their land these traditions were compromised and their land was often taken from them. After Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and learned about the abundant land full of resources, others from Europe decided to make the long journey for various reasons including to escape monarchy and seek religious freedom.

When the Pilgrims sailed to Massachusetts from England and the Netherlands on the Mayflower to form a new colony in 1620, 102 passengers were on board along with 30 crew members. Half of them died of disease and scurvy from poor nutrition and infectious disease.[1]

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris: The First Thanksgiving 1621
Painted in 1932, Library of Congress

It is believed that Squanto, an Indian who had been captured by the British and enslaved, escaped from England back to America. He spoke English and was able to communicate with the Pilgrims and showed them how to plant and grow American native foods and avoid poisonous plants. The Mayflower survivors were successful in growing the three sisters – corn, beans, and squash after being taught by the Indians and were able to establish a colony. As a thank you, in late autumn, 1621, the pilgrims invited the local Indians who saved them from starvation to a celebratory feast which became the first Thanksgiving.  While there is not consensus on the exact details of the event or the foods consumed, it generally is believed that the feast lasted three days and included a variety of corn, beans, squashes along with wild game (deer, ducks, geese) and seafood. Turkey may or may not have been on the menu. There was no sugar, flour, sweet potatoes, or potatoes on the menu, but cornbread and cranberries were likely featured.

As the American colonies expanded, local politicians continued to celebrate the harvest in late November as winter settled in. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 that the last Thursday in November was officially declared as a day to celebrate the harvest and give thanks to the Indians in the United States.

As we celebrate and honor the foods of the Americas, we need to teach our children to recognize how the Native Americans deserve to be thanked, appreciated, celebrated, and honored. 

Mural of a Three Sisters Garden Painted by Students in NYC, 1999