Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Eels, Lobsters and Turkey: “The American Plate” by Libby O’Connell

I’ve been taking “bites” from Libby O’Connell’s “The American Plate: the History of American Cuisine in 100 Bites” for a couple of years now. I first heard about the book over the radio when Leonard Lopate was interviewing Dr. O’Connell, chief historian at the History Channel.  When I tuned in, the author was telling Leonard Lopate how the Puritans enjoyed eating eels, and they used lobster, which they found bitter, as bait to catch the eels.

It’s hard to read “The American Plate” straight through, as it’s a combination encyclopedia-cookbook. But I have enjoyed reading an occasional chapter on my Kindle. Syllabub anyone?  The book goes from maize and squash up to sushi and super foods.

The chapters called “Turkey” and “the Rise of Thanksgiving” are so interesting. For example, although turkey is native to North America, its English name reflects the fact that Turkish traders were the first to bring turkeys to England. The Turks imported the turkeys from Spain, which got their birds from their American colonies.

I also had no idea that Thanksgiving used to be political. In the Northeast, where Thanksgiving was primarily celebrated at first, abolitionist speeches were made on Thanksgiving. So one Virginia governor (Henry Wise, 1856-1860) refused to let his state observe the holiday. Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, right after Union victories.

If you want to find out what was served at the first Thanksgiving feasts - not just in Plymouth but at earlier ones in St. Augustine and Virginia too - read “The American Plate”. Hint: it may not have been turkey. And no, not cranberry sauce either. (Although we don’t have this book at BHPL, we can borrow it for you from another library.)

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