To celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we’ve asked Oxford employees to share their holidays traditions. Referencing The Oxford Companion to Food, we put together a slideshow of fun food facts to accompany some of our favorite traditions.
“Growing up, we’d always have Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house, and after the meal and deserts, when the men went and slept (err, watched football), my aunt would bring out this big bowl of nuts, and she and my mom, cousin, grandma, and I would just sit around the table cracking and eating them. We haven’t had them in a while – may have to bring them back this year!” -Alyssa R.
Nuts are highly nutritious. Some contain much fat (e.g. pecan 70 per cent, macadamia nut 66 per cent, Brazil nut 65 per cent, walnut 60 per cent, almond 55 per cent); most have a good protein content (in the range of 10– 30 per cent); and only a few have a very high starch content (notably the chestnut, ginkgo nut, and acorn). The water content of nuts, as they are usually sold, is remarkably low, and they constitute one of the most concentrated kinds of food available. Most nuts, left in the shell, are also remarkable for their keeping quality, and can conveniently be stored for winter use.
“Every Thanksgiving, my father and I cook Cuban food to add to the meal my mother and her sisters prepare. This creates for an interesting dinner combination since my mother’s family always cooks traditional, African American comfort food. Cuban food is very savory (and the flan I make for dessert is very, very sweet!) so sometimes it’s just the two of us who eat it, but it’s worth it and makes the holiday a little more multicultural.” -Celine AR
Flan is a term with two meanings. The one most familiar in Britain is: ‘An open pastry or sponge case containing a (sweet or savoury) filling.’ In France the term flan carries the first meaning described above, but often has the second meaning: a sweet custard which is baked in a mold in the oven until set. The second meaning is the one which is used in Spain and Portugal, where flan is a standard dessert, and in many countries, e.g. Mexico, where either language is current. In the USA what bears the name flan in Britain is likely to be called tart or pie.
“I would like to pass on this atrocity” -Daniel L.
The cranberry is the most important of the berries borne by a group of low, scrubby, woody plants of the genus Vaccinium. These grow on moors and mountainsides, in bogs, and other places with poor and acid soil in most parts of the world, but are best known in Northern Europe and North America. All yield edible berries. When the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in North America they found a local cranberry, V. macrocarpon, which had berries twice the size of those familiar to Europeans, and an equally good flavour. It was no doubt these large American cranberries which, at an early stage in the evolution of Thanksgiving Day dinner, were made into sauce to accompany the turkey, which became established as its centrepiece.
“Each year my aunt and uncle take their pumpkins from Halloween and make pumpkin pies to give out at Thanksgiving to our family.” – Mackenzie C.
The pumpkin is a large vegetable fruit, typically orange in colour, round, and ribbed, borne by varieties of the plant Cucurbita pepo, one of four major species in the genus Cucurbita. The name is thought to derive from an old French word pompon, which in turn came from the classical Greek pepon, a name also applied to the melon. When pumpkin is used in sweet dishes, spices such as ginger and cinnamon are commonly added. This practice goes back a long way. For example, American pumpkin pie, a main feature of the American Thanksgiving dinner, may have been derived from old English recipes for sweet pies using ‘tartstuff’, a thick pulp of boiled, spiced fruit.
“My family isn’t much for a huge sit-down meal on Thanksgiving. Instead, we spread out tons of cheese and crackers, fruit, and appetizers on the living room coffee table, set up a TV, and watch all the Thanksgiving episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Then, for dessert, we have something special like pumpkin cheesecake or apple crumble while watching a Christmas movie.”- Heather S.
Crumble is the name of a simple topping spread instead of pastry on fruit pies of the dish type with no bottom crust, such as are popular in Britain. Crumble is much quicker and easier to make than pastry and it seems probable that it developed during the Second World War. It is like a sweet pastry made without water. The ingredients of a modern crumble are flour, butter, and sugar; a little spice is sometimes added. The butter is cut into the dry ingredients, and the mixture spooned onto the pie filling without further preparation, after which the pie is baked. The butter melts and binds the solid ingredients into large grains, but they do not form a solid layer like a true pastry. The texture can only be described as crumbly. Apple crumble is probably the best-known form.
“A few years ago when I was living in Cairo, my English flatmate went to great lengths to procure a turkey for me as a surprise, because after all it’s not really Thanksgiving without a turkey. When the butcher she went to had no turkey (of course—it’s an unusual bird in Egypt), a butcher shop employee went off on a mission through Cairo for her and finally returned with a 26-pound frozen turkey strapped to the back of his motorbike, unpackaged but for the black 40-gallon trash bag in which it was loosely wrapped. It was about twice the size of our oven, but once we managed to cut it into pieces and roast it, the breast meat alone fed fourteen people with leftovers, and we made gallons of turkey soup with the legs. It’s one of the best Thanksgivings I’ve ever had, even if it took me a few years to want to eat turkey again.” – Lucie T.
Turkey was originally a prefix to the terms cock, hen, and poult (a young bird), but now stands on its own and denotes the species Meleagris gallopavo. Native to North America, these birds are now farmed and used for table poultry around the globe. In 1609 the inhabitants of Jamestown, reduced almost to starvation, were kept alive by gifts of wild game, including ‘turkies’, from the indigenous population. Wild turkeys were served at the second Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, and may have featured in the first, of 1620.
“My parents have the Thanksgiving meal covered. Like really covered. So as I got older and wanted to find some way to contribute, I decided that the afternoon snack (because no one really eats lunch on Thanksgiving at our house) was going to be my contribution. So now, in the days before Thanksgiving, I comb all the cheese shops of Brooklyn to find new and interesting cheeses, olives, whatever looks delicious for snacking. It’s the tradition I made for myself.” – Sarah R.
Cheese is always made from milk but is in other respects of great variety. Its taste may be almost imperceptible, as in some fresh cream cheese, or very strong, as in the most aged blue cheeses. The texture, which depends largely on water content, can be virtually liquid or dry and friable. The fat content ranges from 1 per cent to 75 per cent. The earliest traces of milking come from milk residues in potsherds from north-western Anatolia dating as far back as 6000 BC. Cave paintings in the Libyan Sahara dating from 5000 bc show what might be cheese-making going on in prehistoric Northern Africa. These remains antedate what archaeologists now call the ‘secondary products revolution’, when domesticated animals were exploited for their renewable resources. That profound shift in husbandry practice, estimated to have occurred in the Near East in about 3500 bc, means that it is no surprise that the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians made cheese. Cheese was also familiar in pre-classical Greece, as we know from Homer’s description of Circe serving cheese to Odysseus, and it was a staple food of classical Greece and Rome.
Featured image credit: “mushrooms-tomato-plate-pot-red” by Engin_Akyurt. CC0 via Pixabay.