One of the first history lessons most of us learn as schoolchildren is the one about the Pilgrims and the Indians, sitting down together to a peaceful supper of roasted wild turkey, maize, and…wait, did they have anything other than turkey and maize, in the story? We assume this meal would have been gathered, not grown, since the Pilgrims didn’t exactly have the whole ‘supporting themselves’ thing down yet, but once you get past the two obvious plate-fillers, it’s hard to imagine what else would have been on the menu. There doesn’t seem to be much overlap between what the Pilgrims would eat and what the New World could naturally provide. The Pilgrims sought to establish and transplant European culture. Behaving like hunters and gatherers was, from their perspective, simply not to be considered.
This attitude was pervasive, and not limited to the colonies of the Northeast. In the Chesapeake, the colonists at Jamestown and into the 17th century shared this disinterest in native foods, even when it meant famine, as in the example of the Starving Time of the winter of 1608-1609. Although surrounded by waterways lined with tuckahoe (the survival food for Chesapeake Indians), at the height of their desperation the Jamestown settlers fed on horses, cats, dogs, rats, and in a few notable cases, their dead comrades, rather than subsist on sources of wild nourishment around them.
Why were the colonists so unable to assimilate their tastes to the incredible bounty of the New World ? Well, one major reason may be that the strength of comfort in the familiar should never be underestimated. Simply put, if they didn’t recognize it from home, it wasn’t going into their mouths. They would eat familiar foods like oysters, venison, and sturgeon with gusto, as evidenced by archaeological investigations into their trash piles, but disdained wild foods like groundnut, wild rice, and cattail. The only notable exception to this rule? Corn. In British English, 'corn’ just meant 'grain’, and in the Colonies, maize was treated as a substitute for the wheat fields the settlers were unable or unmotivated to grow in their colonial outposts. Colonists even referred to corn as “Guinny wheat,” or “Turkie wheat.“
Two of the 'providential’ discoveries in the New World by the Pilgrims involve this culture-bridging grain. One was the finding of caches of Indian corn, buried in the ground to overwinter for next spring’s seed, along the coast of Cape Cod, as the Pilgrims traveled inland seeking succor. The other was the legendary Pilgrim 'instruction’ by Squanto of corn cultivation techniques. Stated Governor Bradford of the process:
“In April of the first year they began to plant their corne, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both ye manner how to set it, and after, how to dress and tend it.”
In Jamestown, John Smith wheedled and threatened the Chesapeake Indians to continue the supply of maize to the cookpots of the settlers, and many of the negotiations were tense, hostile, and occasionally life-threatening. Unbeknownst to the Jamestown colonists, their arrival to the Chesapeake was in the middle of a protracted drought that had severely impacted the harvest of maize, a situation that was a serious flaw in the settler’s plan to largely rely on the Indians for corn. Only after several years of sporadic corn trade, subsequent months of malnourishment, and the occasional arrival of tall ships from England, laden with supplies, was every colonist in Virginia required, by law, to grow their own corn.
The prevalence and tradition of Indian corn didn’t just stop in the field. Many of the dishes colonists prepared with maize were similar, if not identical, to the recipes developed by Indians, and the names of these foods prepared in longhouses and daub and wattle dwellings alike echo with native influence: hominy, pone, suppawn, samp, succotash. Some of them we even prepare today.
So this Thanksgiving, when you bow your head and think of all the things you’re grateful for, spare a little gratitude for the humble cob. Although turkey might get all the glory, our colonial predecessors, through trial, error, arrogance, and finally, appreciation, knew the might of the maize.