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Thanksgiving Features Native American Foods

Many of the traditional foods eaten at Thanksgiving dinner have Native American roots but have been spiced up

Thanksgiving holiday has its origins in the early 17th century when European settlers shared a meal of thanks with Native Americans after a successful fall harvest
Thanksgiving holiday has its origins in the early 17th century when European settlers shared a meal of thanks with Native Americans after a successful fall harvest
Jeff Swicord

Each year, Americans gather with families and friends on the fourth Thursday of November to celebrate Thanksgiving.   The celebration usually includes a meal of turkey, sweet potatoes, squash, cornbread, cranberries, and pumpkin pie.  The first Thanksgiving meal in North America is thought to have taken place in 1621 as European settlers gathered with Native Americans to give thanks for a successful fall harvest. Many Americans believe Thanksgiving was created by the early European settlers. 

Executive Chef Richard Hetzler is an expert on Native American foods.

He's on a team that put together the cafeteria's menu at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.  The team spent several months researching Native American foods going back centuries.

Their menu features foods from five different regions across the U.S.

We stopped by to talk with him about the role Native Americans played in early Thanksgiving celebrations.

"I think the biggest thing is that it was truly to give thanks.  It was an end of the year food harvest that people used.  They weren't going to be able to eat that well for the rest of the year because you were going into the winter months," Hetzler said.

Today on Thanksgiving, family and friends gather for a traditional turkey dinner.

But the holiday has its origins in the early 17th century when European settlers shared a meal of thanks with Native Americans after a successful fall harvest.

Although Thanksgiving is not a Native American holiday, Chef Hetzler points out that Native Americans taught the European settlers how to trap, gather, and preserve the food that allowed them to survive in North America.  Many historians believe the settlers would not have survived those early years without help from Native Americans.

"I think my take on Thanksgiving is it was Native Americans that brought together a bounty of feast for everybody to have," Hetzler explains. "And they would use the items that they would have had available to them."

Hetzler says a wide array of Native American foods would have been present at the first Thanksgiving. "This is our Three Sister Salad. It has everything they would have had, the beans, the corn, the squash.  I would imagine that that would have been on the table.  The turkey definitely would have been on the table.  Right now, the corn bread definitely would have been there," he said.

At the Museum of the American Indian, Chef Hetzler has tried to take the bland ingredients in Native American foods and adapt them to the modern palate. "The original corn bread recipes that we could find were very dense.  There is really no leavening in them," he said. "And essentially, I mean it made sense for what Native Americans did, they needed to take food and pack it with them."

Hetzler says one of the most important things settlers learned from Native Americans was how to preserve vegetables and meats so they would last through the winter.

"A lot of those vegetables could have been dried out.  So they would have cut them and laid them out in the sun.  And then they would have reconstituted them in soups and things of that nature.  So they were very good at preserving.  They also did a lot with salt," he added. "They were one of the first people to use salt to actually cure, cook, and preserve food."

But the friendship between the settlers and the Native Americans did not last long.  Eventually, European settlers drove the Native Americans off their lands.  And the settlers lost touch with many Native American foods... except on Thanksgiving.

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