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The Monday Garden
Thanksgiving: Sugar Maples

Issue No. 35 - November 24, 2002
by Sue Sweeney


The Monday Garden this week is the glow of a native sugar maple in a churchyard near my home. Thinking about maple sugar led me to thinking about the other food plants available to the Pre-Columbian North Americans. What was it like, before fast, cheap global transportation, when we had only local produce?

Amazingly, worldwide, all of humanity depend today on under 100 plants for food and almost none of the major food crops originated in temperate North America. The Pre-Colombians in this region worked hard to get enough to eat and often lived along coastlines for the seafood. It would have been very difficult without the squash, beans and maize whose seeds had been imported from Central America.

Produce that could have been served that first Thanksgiving include:

  • Fruit: crabapple, wild grape, beach plum (no apples, mangos, peaches, pears, grapes, citrus, melons or bananas).

  • Berries: cranberry, blueberry, elderberry, wild strawberry, blackberry (no cherries, junipers, raspberries or olives)

  • Nuts: hickory, hazelnut, chestnut, black walnut, pecan, acorn (no walnuts, almonds, pistachios or peanuts)

  • Roots: Jerusalem artichokes, cattail (no potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets or onions)

  • Seeds: wild rice, sunflower (no wheat, rye, oats, millet, barley, soy, broad-beans, peas, chickpeas or rice)

  • Other: seasonal greens, culinary and medicinal herbs, mushrooms (no okra, lettuce, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, celery, peppers or cucumbers)

  • Sweets: maple syrup (no sugar cane or honey)

  • Southern imports: summer and winter squash, pumpkins, maize, kidney-type beans (navy, kidney, pinto, yellow-eyed, great northern), string beans.

Active humans of the time needed 2 or 3 times more calories than we do. Yet, the available produce was labor intensive to harvest; there were few high-carb plant foods; and the game and fish were mostly low fat. Maple sugar, then, like the Southern imports, must have been a treasure beyond measure.

Meanwhile, the Pre-Colombian Meso-Americans had the fabled “fountain of youth” (now called “antioxidants”). Depending on the region, they ate: tomatoes, sweet onions, papayas, pineapples, avocados, cashews, brazil nuts, maize, quinoa, lima beans, peanuts, kidney-type beans, string beans, vanilla, cocoa, chili pepper, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, manioc, white potato, sweet potato, and American wild bee honey. True gold.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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