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By Ellen Probert Williamson
With this year’s Fourth of July fresh in our memories, it is intriguing to know of the great controversy which developed when a national bird to symbolize American characteristics was being chosen soon after the original Independence Day.
Many patriotic citizens voted for the great wild turkey, which was far more common to colonials than the more rare bald eagle.
Benjamin Franklin, supported by James Madison, led the turkey lobbyists and soundly condemned the bad moral character and the predatory hunting habits of the eagle.
The eagle supporters, however, carried the day in the Continental Congress when, in the heat of debate, it was alleged that the turkey was both cowardly and stupid, and therefore certainly not typical of the bold new nation.
The discussion, certainly not one of the most critical, had raged on and off for six years before it was finally resolved in favor of the eagle.
The many life-sustaining vegetables which grew in the colonies were memorialized by Plymouth’s Governor William Bradford, a self-styled poet who apparently did not believe in brief titles for his work. One of his long narrative-style poems was titled, “Some Observations of God’s Merciful Dealing with Us in this Wildernesse, and His Gracious Protection Over Us in These Many Years, Blessed Be His Name.”
One verse of this laboriously detailed poem explains:
All sorts of roots and
herbs in gardens grow,
Parsnips, carrots, turnips,
or what you’ll sow,
Skirrets, beets, colewarts
and fair cabbages,
Nut grapes, of several
sorts are here
If you will take the pains
them to seek for.
One widely held superstition among the Indians and many settlers insisted that a naked squaw strolling through her garden on a moonlit night dragging her garment behind her would ensure a good crop and prevent cutworms from destroying the vegetables, particularly corn.
Indian corn, or maize, was the most important food staple of the early settlement of America. Explorers from all sections of Europe seemed fascinated by this plant that grew so abundantly and required so little attention. Priests who accompanied Hernando de Soto on his expedition to Florida in the mid-1500s considered celebrating the Eucharist with cornbread, but this idea was rejected as not befitting the dignity of this solemn ceremony. Corn, sometimes referred to as turkie wheat, was being cultivated widely by all the colonists in the new country.
There were many legends among various Indian tribes concerning the origins of the four major American vegetables. According to their belief, these foods came from the daughter of the Holy Sky Woman, who had descended from the heavens on the wings of birds. When the daughter died and was buried in a shallow grave, corn sprang from her breast, squash grew from her abdomen, beans sprouted from her fingers, and potatoes from her toes.
As an added benefit, tobacco grew from her head.
Although the first settlers reserved judgment on this somewhat bizarre settlement of explanation, vegetables soon became important to their survival. Colonials followed many of the agricultural practices developed by the Indians. Corn, pumpkins and beans were planted together so that early maturing stalks of corn would be the poles to support the climbing bean stems, while the ground vines of pumpkins helped to retain water and prevent erosion of the soil.
One section of a field would be planted several weeks after the first in order to extend the harvest season so that fresh vegetables would be available for a longer period.
After the crops were gathered, corn husking bees were held in pioneer communities. Indians celebrated a successful harvest with the Green Corn Dance Festival, which coincided with the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving celebration. The Indians and farmers in early America cultivated many varieties of both peas and beans. One early American cookbook lists nine different types of edible varieties cultivated during this period. One 17th century writer, assisting Lord Baltimore in his attempts to lure colonists to Maryland, insisted the land was so fertile that peas grew a full 10 inches in only 10 days.
The pease porridge of nursery rhyme fame was a staple food in Maryland. It consisted of a cooked pea mush that had been put through a sieve and flavored with herbs, pepper and butter. A similar dish in New York involved several different kinds of peas flavored with butter, celery and ginger.
The Indians ate the peas as well as the plant’s stalks, shoots, leaves and pods.
When colonial settlers came to America, they found no vast treasures of gold and silver, or rare spices.
But they did discover something much more vital to survival: the world’s largest outdoor, natural supermarket, and gave to us a heritage of enormous value which we enjoy today.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.