Tender Sapling

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When Cross-Cultural Exploration Bombs: A Wampanoag Thanksgiving


Ok. I never thought I’d start a post with this title. Not me. A lover of all things global. A world citizen junkie. Someone who spent fifteen years working in various forms of international education on three different continents. Nah.

But this is real life, and I want this blog to be authentic, capturing both the highs and the lows, so I’m sharing our recent cross-cultural experience that fell flat. First, let me qualify that what I’m about to share is not just another story of American kids who think that Africa is a country and can’t find the United States on a map. My kids so love diving into other cultures that all three of them (ages 9, 5, and 2) recently begged every time we got in the car to listen to the biography of the Ghanaian King Peggy until we had completed all 11 cds! Now, some background:

We’d just wrapped up learning about the first European settlements along the Atlantic coast of North America. After studying about Roanoke Island, Jamestown, and the French expeditions and settlements in Eastern Canada (we’d already covered Greenland’s early history last year), we dove into the Pilgrims.

Our two oldest sons soak up everything Powhatan while at Jamestown.

The library was a treasure trove. We dragged heavy bags of books home and read a lot about the Pilgrims, their journey across the Atlantic, the founding and survival challenges of Plymouth Colony, the original inhabitants of Southern Massachusetts – the Wampanoags, Squanto and how his farming knowledge aided the Pilgrims, the First Thanksgiving, and more. Since Thanksgiving was approaching, when questions of menu for the big American holiday came up, a light went off in my head.

Let’s try an authentic, original Thanksgiving meal! None of the mid-1800s Sarah Josepha Hale concoctions. (Hale petitioned five US presidents to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday and widely published recipes for dishes to be served at Thanksgiving, none of which were faithful to the original celebration but are the staples of a modern Thanksgiving spread: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes.) Our history activity book listed several traditional Wampanoag recipes. And our kids love trying new foods! (Ok, our 9-year-old more so than our 5-year-old, and the 2-year-old doesn’t really count yet. But overall, they are food sports and regularly request Persian, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Thai, Ethiopian…you get the picture.) Plus, it seemed a nice way to give gratitude to the original peoples who made survival in this new land possible for the Pilgrims. An opportunity of sorts to show thankfulness through our actions and not just our words – something we’d been working on. Perfect!

I presented our additional possible contributions to the meal to my mother-in-law, who was to host this year’s celebration. Eel? Succotash? Traditional Wampanoag cornbread? No direct response. She simply reiterated her earlier request that she’d love for us to bring apple and pumpkin pies. They’d be a perfect end to the menu she’d planned. Hmm. It seemed Sarah Josepha Hale’s lasting influence was a force not to be reckoned with in this case. Ok. Maybe it’s better not to saddle extended family with our educational experiments this time.

Fine. We’d enjoy a modern Thanksgiving meal at the in-laws on Thanksgiving Day and follow it sometime that weekend with a traditional Wampanoag (inspired) meal at home.

The menu?

* Succotash. My husband had fine memories of succotash (the simpler modernized version) and had requested it. Points for him getting behind the Wampanoag meal plan. Simple enough ingredients: onion, corn, lima beans, bacon. And my husband always says (even through years of us eating mostly vegetarian): Bacon…good! That should go over well.

* Cornbread with some modern adaptations. Still sounded pretty authentic and yummy. The kids would eat cornbread every week if I served it. My only hesitation is it’s so crumbly that it’s always a huge mess to clean up. So, until someone invents a neater way to eat cornbread, it’s a special occasion food in our home. (Oh yeah, I just remembered the wonderful honey cornbread muffins that hold their shape better! Will have to pull that one out again.)

* Stewed Pompion. Wow – that sounded really authentic. Points for the name. We had leftover pumpkin from a hand-picked organic pumpkin that my middle son had desired to bake and turn into pumpkin pie, which Scott claims was the best pumpkin pie he’d ever tasted. (By the way, this is not a stolen pumpkin from Monticello, but a store-bought specimen that truly was delicious). Perfect use of the leftover pumpkin.

* Chard. I decided they must have eaten some sort of greens and since our veggie garden was still bursting with chard, chard it would be! And since I really am trying to make greens using recipes my kids like, I decided this would be the one exception to our menu’s authenticity and it would be the delicious creamed chard recipe that is always a sure bet. It would indirectly honor the European heritage of the Pilgrims.

After a lovely Thanksgiving Dinner at my in-laws and a buffer day to clear the palate, Wampanoag Thanksgiving Day arrived. While the kids jumped in piles of leaves outside (daily dose of kids’ nature time? check.), I pulled out the ingredients and got busy in the kitchen. As I read the details of the recipes, my excitement dampened. Hm, so the raw bacon is simply to be boiled in with the corn & beans? Not fried or baked to my husband’s definition of crispy perfection? Blech. And the Stewed Pompion recipe came with a warning that the modern kid’s tongue might find the unsweetened, vinegary seasoning hard to stomach. Yikes, how had I missed that?

I got a little desperate as I realized that my kids would probably not eat much of the traditional Wampanoag meal. Remembering that I already had some copycat Jiffy cornbread mixed up and waiting to have hot dogs rolled in it for baked corn dogs, I improvised.

Don’t judge me. I was really short on time to get dinner on the table and wanted to reduce the chance of having to do something we rarely do — send the kids to the fridge to scrounge for alternatives. I wanted them to come away from the meal with some good taste in their mouths. So, I got creative. I mixed up the cornbread dough and poured a layer into an 8 x 8 baking pan. Then I laid hot dogs in and poured another layer of the dough on top. All tucked in, and into the oven they went! Meal points lost on my five year old? Hopefully regained.

Rather than give all the sordid details of each dish, let’s just say it was a wonderful experiment in forcing food into my mouth while trying to keep a smile on my face. (Do you know the scene in Bridget Jones Diary when her friends try to stomach her incredibly bizarre homemade birthday dinner? Not unlike that.) In fact, it tested all of us in that way.

Wampanoag-inspired cornbread-in-the-making with surprise hotdogs inside.

Wampanoag-inspired cornbread-in-the-making with surprise hotdogs inside.

Wampanoag-inspired Thanksgiving Meal

Wampanoag-inspired Thanksgiving Meal

This interview with my sons pretty well summarizes the experience:

What did you think of the Wampanoag food?

9yo: I sort of liked the Succotash.

5yo: I liked the cornbread hotdog thing.

9yo: I didn’t like the stewed pompion.

Did you love the Wampanoag dinner?

9yo: No.

5yo: I liked it ok.

Would you like to eat it again?

9yo: No.

5yo: Maybe. Especially the hot dogs.

Are you glad we had that dinner?

9yo: Yes, I’m glad I know how hard it was to live back then and to have to eat such not-my-favorite foods. But back then you didn’t really have a choice. And they ate eel back then.

5yo: Yes, sort of. Because I liked the hot dog and the cornbread.

What did you learn about the Wampanoags?

9yo: That their lives must have been pretty hard if they had to eat foods like that at every dinner.

5yo: But they didn’t have hot dogs! I like plain cornbread too.

You get the point. Not a menu to repeat. But a lesson well learned. While our kids have truly loved learning about Native American tribes over the years, it was good for them to realize that one tribe’s foods from 400 years ago might have tasted plainer or more bitter than the delightful, authentic foods offered at the café at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

And in this modern life that we lead, the opportunity to expose our children to a world different from their own is always a treasure. In that way, the meal earned extra points.

      Postscript: When we first imagined the Tender Sapling blog, we thought it’d be fun to share recipes that we love – delicious, nutritious, global, kid-friendly… It’s ironic that our first food-related post is about a meal flop, but so be it. We’ll save recipe-swapping for the next food post. Or maybe we’ll add the hybrid corndog bread recipe later as Scott’s saying how much everyone liked that. 🙂

Also, we in no way mean to insult the Wampanoag cuisine or its amazing culture. Perhaps the recipes from our  history book were not the right starting point or I didn’t do them justice. We deeply appreciate that taste and flavor is highly subjective and very much steeped in habit and experience. If one grew up eating that Stewed Pompion recipe and was not comparing it to a cinnamony sweet pumpkin flavor to which one is accustomed, one would no doubt become accustomed to that instead. We did share these ideas with the kids so they know not to judge a culture’s cuisine by one meal. We’d actually like to try different recipes another time. If anyone reading this has traditional Wampanoag recipes to share, please send them to theteam @ tendersapling [dot] com. We’re game to try again next year!


Author: Emily

Emily is homeschooling mama to three amazing boys, whose alarming growth and appetites keep her running laps to the grocery store. She writes about loving life amidst the piles of laundry and legos. When life is just too much, she binges on chocolate and plans a dream trip around the world.

5 thoughts on “When Cross-Cultural Exploration Bombs: A Wampanoag Thanksgiving

  1. This was great, Emily!!!! I so enjoyed hearing about your motivation for, and results of, an amazing cultural experience! You are very brave to put so much extra effort into creating dishes that you have a feeling your kids may not like. Impressive!!! Like you, my oldest tries everything, and usually ends up liking all kinds of food, my middle one would have starved for that meal, and my youngest would have somehow managed to get himself a pb&j sandwhich! Too bad we both couldn’t have been studying this part of history together, remember we did it last year? I loved every minute of it, and what a perfect place to be living during that study…

    • What great memories! We miss having your family down the street! Not sure if my meal plan was brave or unwise… I can totally picture how it would have gone over with your three. 🙂 The funny thing is today we were talking about going to DC this Saturday as part of our studies of the various empires that ruled in Persia and the kids said they’d love to eat at the cafe at the Nat’l Museum of the American Indian. I’m hoping they offer something from the Wampanoag people, as everything we’ve tried there is delicious.

  2. For traditional Wampanoag recipes that work well with our contemporary tastes, please see this website page: http://www.manyhoops.com/wampanoag-food-and-recipes_1.html.

    All of the recipes are made with foods that are familiar and easy to obtain. I hope this helps in your efforts for this coming year’s 2013 Thanksgiving menu.

    As a note of interest this website was created by me, a Native American and my friend, a direct pilgrim descendant. Because of our backgrounds the site includes culturally and historically accurate craft ideas, coloring pages and much more. We hope this will be of assistance to educators and the public alike.

    Thank you for your blog and writing it with such honesty,

    • Hi Paula! Thank you so much for visiting our blog and sharing such a wonderful resource with our readers! These Wampanoag recipes look delicious! I can’t wait to try them. How great that you even include a stew with crockpot instructions to make it easier for the modern home cook. How do you know when the Marachock is ripe? We recently added two passionflower plants to our garden, so this would be an easy one for us to try.

  3. Hi Emily, Thanks for reminding me to add this important fact about the ripeness of the fruit. I’ve changed the information on our website to include this in the marchock jelly recipe. I also added a marchock drink recipe. Anyway, the way to tell if the fruit is ripe is when it begins to yellow and wrinkle just a bit. (Although, it is edible when green, just not as sweet and juicy.) And there are those who say to wait until it turns more of an orange color. For the real taste test, I’m going to rely on you, if you get the chance to harvest the fruit, please let us know what you find!

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