At this time of year we gather to give thanks, for many things that have been important to us during the year, but a common theme is thanks for our food. The holiday falls in the time of the harvest. Different cultural groups around the world also celebrate the harvest with a variety of customs of giving thanks.
I have previously written blogs about traditional stories of hunting, preserving food, and the uses of fruit and nut trees in the wild. For Thanksgiving this year, I decided to pay tribute to those who work provide us with fruits and vegetables that sometimes spill out of decorative cornucopias on our holiday tables. I will draw examples from the American Folklife Center research projects that have documented the traditions of farmers and home gardeners, and others, as well as the processes and traditions related to the raising and harvesting of crops.
A place to start is not with the plants, but with pollinators. Honey bees are essential to the pollination of about one third of the plants that humans use for food. Native North American plants may be pollinated by bats, hummingbirds, native bees, moths, butterflies, and other native insects, but most fruits and vegetables brought from Europe are dependent on European honey bees. Honey bees are among the oldest and smallest of domesticated animals. Consequently, the domesticated European or Western bee has been spread to most parts of the world, in many cases transported by human beings. In the 1990 a mite threatened the bee population and another threat, colony collapse disorder, emerged as well. Today beekeepers work to combat the causes of bee decline and we have learned that a better understanding of bees and other pollinators is important to all of us. The American Folklife Center included beekeepers in the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, before these new threats to the bee emerged, and in the Coal River Folklife Project in the 1990s when these problems in the bee population had become known (available in Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia).
In addition to domestic beekeeping practices, the fieldworkers asked about collecting feral bees. Bees that escape from hives and take up residence in the forest became a source for new beehives for beekeepers. So traditional methods were used to collect bees from the wild, usually when the bees began to swarm and a newly hatched queen might be taken. The beekeeper might cut out a section of a hollow tree with the feral beehive inside. During the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, Carl Fleischhauer photographed an example of a beehive made from a log in Lowgap, North Carolina, in 1978 that was created by just this method and was used as a hive. The beekeeper that owned it, Caldwell Schuyler, used standard hives as seen in this photograph, but the log hive was given to him by a neighbor.
In the Coal River Folklife Project, folklorist Mary Hufford asked about how beekeepers tracked bees to the bee tree and took them out by climbing up the tree after them. Using smoke to calm the bees, they could remove the new swarm with the queen and place it into a hive in their orchard. In this audio recording, Hufford talks with Paul Fitzwater Sr. and Phil Pettry about hunting for feral bees in Ameagle, West Virginia in 1997. It was a practice that locals had told her was not done much anymore.
Documentation of these beekeeping traditions of collecting feral bees was thought to be the preservation of vanishing knowledge in the late 1990s. Feral bees were declining just as the domestic bees were as a result of disease and pests and in many areas were thought to have disappeared. But in some places it is now clear that feral bee populations not only survived, but are making a comeback, often with a greater resistance to the mites that bother domestic bees. Feral bees are becoming of interest again as the reasons for this resistance are researched (see, for example, this story from Wisconsin Public Radio, “While Honey Production Continues to Decline, Wild Honey Bees Appear to be Thriving,” July 5, 2019).
Apples have historically been an important crop in the settlement and development of North America. The saying “American as apple pie,” shows how closely the apple is tied to American identity. Apples were principally used for cider in colonial times. John Chapman (1774 – 1845), a nurseryman who sold apple trees across the United States as the west was being pioneered, sold sour apple varieties mainly used in making cider. When he died his orchards sold off his apple trees at a bargain prices, an event that probably contributed to his legend as Johnny Appleseed.
In the Rhode Island Folklife Project the fieldworkers documented the Steere Apple Orchard in Greeneville, an orchard started in 1905 on what had been a dairy farm. They interviewed the owner, Mrs. Frieda Steere, and photographed the harvest (the photographs and recordings are available at the link). Mrs. Steere talks about the history of the orchard and changes in the way it was managed and what they raised over the three generations it has been in her family. The family not only raises the apples, but sells them themselves. The ripest apples are picked first, and these are the most valued in the Steere family market sales. So Mrs. Steere explains how these apples are carefully picked into buckets with a soft burlap bottom and workers are taught to handle them gently so that they do not bruise.
Some apple varieties can keep well through the winter providing fruit when other fruits are less available. Historically they were often used in savory dishes, and today they still sometimes show up in in stews, stuffings, and other savory foods. Apples can also be dried for winter storage. In the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project collection, Jess Hatcher demonstrated his homemade drying rack for apples; and Josh Easter and Veoma Easter showed the folklorists how they peeled and dried apples as well (photos at the links).
The juneberry is a fruit native to North America, also called the shadberry, sarvisberry, and saskatoon among other names. The berries can be eaten raw and are enjoyed in pies and jams. They have a long history of use by Native Americans. They are found in every state but Hawai’i, but they are especially important in the northern United States and Canada where there are many species and some other fruits are harder to grow. They can be dried for winter use and so, like apples, can provide fruit during the winter. Species also grow in northern Europe, and so European settlers quickly took to using the American varieties. Juneberries may be wild, as in this example, cultivated for larger size and sweetness, or semi-cultivated — as selected wild shrubs may be transplanted close to human habitation. As fieldworkers from the Montana Folklife Survey documented the Crow Fair at the Crow Agency, members of the Heywood Big Day family set off to the Pryor Mountains to pick Juneberries, as these become ripe at the same time as the fair. So folklorists went along to document this activity.
The Nagashima family, documented as part of the Montana Folklife Survey, began farming in Montana growing sugar beets but expanded to other crops. The family showed the folklorists the foods they grow for themselves. These include Asian greens. One photo appears to show chirimen hakusai, a Japanese leafy green, although it was not positively identified in the photographer’s log (find more photos at this link). The family talked about many of their traditions, including foodways (all three recordings are available at this link). At about 8 minutes into the recording below (part 1), the family talks with Miiko Toelken about the foods they grow and prepare for themselves as well as food traditions and differences between American and Asian foods.
There is more on foodways in the third part of the interview. Mrs. Iyo Nagashima speaks Japanese while the rest of the family speaks in English, so the languages switch back and forth, although most of the recording above is in English. Miiko Toelken prepared notes on the full interview with a summaries of the Japanese parts of the conversation in English, available at the link. On page 6 of this transcript is a list of some of the Asian vegetables the family grew for their own use. Some of these, such as adzuki beans, daikon radish, and Chinese cabbage, are familiar to many Americans.
Like the Nagashima family, the provider of food for your table might be you, if you have a home garden. Or it might be a neighbor who shares the bounty of their garden with you. Growing fruits and vegetables for ourselves is a tradition that has persisted in spite of all predictions that grocery stores will replace gardens. In American Folklife Center field projects, gardens are often documented, as they give insights into what people choose to grow for their own tables. In addition to tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, and beans, people may grow items that are harder to come by in the local grocery stores.
In the Coal River Folklife Project, Mary Hufford documented several gardens and many of the crops people grew, both common ones and some that are uncommon. Woody Boggs introduced folklorists to some unusual crops in his garden. An early spring crop he grew were ramps, an early wild leek often collected in the wild. But ramps can be seeded or transplanted in a shady garden spot so that they come up near at hand when they are ready to harvest in the spring. Ramps take some time to become established, so a personal ramp patch is a labor of love. At this link is a picture of Woody Boggs in his ramp patch. For autumn, Boggs delighted in an unusual squash, the cushaw pumpkin. Originally native to Mexico, it can be grown in many parts of the United States. It can be used like other winter squash and makes a fine pumpkin pie. The unripe squash are cooked as a vegetable. In this recording Woody Boggs, Dave Bailey, and Glenna Bailey talk with Mary Hufford about the wonderful things that can be made with cushaw pumpkin (in Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia).
So as you sit down to your holiday feasts this year, think about those near and far who bring you fruits and vegetables for your table, now and during the rest of the year, the farmers, the gardeners, yourself perhaps, and all the pollinators.
Winick, Stephen, “Festive Foods Podcast in Time for Thanksgiving,” Folklife Today, November 19, 2018.