Thanksgiving and étouffée on the hoof
I read somewhere that we eat more as a nation on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year. I believe it, and have traditionally done my part to make that happen.
That’s partly because I like good food, but also because food is an essential part of this annual celebration of faith, family, friends and shared traditions — all of which are essential parts of who we are. There may be no other place where these things meld so closely or so deliciously as in south Louisiana
On practically every holiday table in Acadiana at least one dish will come from a recipe handed down through generations. We associate the feast with dressing made from Grandma’s recipe or the taste of Aunt Tee’s special dish. It is a time when families gathered around the table are thankful for the bonds that tie us together, and for our remembered and renewed traditions.
Nowadays, turkey has become so associated with this feast that Thanksgiving has the nickname of “Turkey Day.” There’s good reason for that, although it wasn’t always so.
William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, wrote that the 1671 Thanksgiving feast included “a great store of wild turkeys, of which [the Pilgrims] took many,” and Alexander Hamilton proclaimed years later that no “citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” But food historians such as Andrew Smith tell us that the turkey wasn’t at the center of the table nearly so frequently until about the time of the Civil War (The Turkey: An American Story, University of Illinois Press, 2006).
Turkey gained popularity over the years, according to most theories, because Thanksgiving is an American celebration and the turkey is a tasty native American bird. (Benjamin Franklin was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey as the national bird. Franklin wrote to his daughter that the eagle had “bad moral character,” and said “the turkey is a much more respectable bird, and … a true original native of America.”)
Good marketing has boosted its popularity in modern times. Turkey consumption has more than doubled since 1970, according to the National Turkey Federation, which modestly takes a bit of credit for that. Today nearly 90 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, according to foundation figures. The turkeys average 16 pounds each, meaning that more than 700 million pounds of turkey will be consumed in the United States this Thanksgiving.
But that’s nationwide. Tables in south Louisiana will surely feature their fair share of turkey, but I suspect not quite the proportion as the nation as a whole. We’ve got a longer-standing tradition to look back on, and are blessed with a lot more choices than most places
The first Acadians sat down with their Indian friends and had a big feast a long time before the Pilgrims even got to the New World. According to the chronicler Marc Lescarbot, at a feast of the Order of Good Cheer, the Acadian predecessor to Thanksgiving begun in 1606, the “table [groaned] beneath all the luxuries of the winter forest: flesh of moose, caribou, and deer, beaver, otter, and hare, bears and wildcats; with ducks, geese, grouse, and plover; sturgeon, too, and trout, and fish innumerable, speared through the ice.” Not a turkey in sight.
Like those ancestors of long ago, we have other options; the cornucopia overflows in south Louisiana. We can fill our holiday tables with nothing but home-grown foods and eat like royalty. I’m not sure what the Pilgrims would have done with the crawfish we’re beginning to pull from ponds this month, but I suspect Lescarbot and his gang would have recognized étouffée on the hoof when they saw it.
That’s just one of our unique options in Acadiana. We’re talking about boudin-stuffed chickens at our house this year, with so many side dishes there will hardly be room for a second piece of pecan pie. But don’t worry, I’ll manage somehow. Duty is duty.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.