A Seaweed Thanksgiving

Before you say no thanks, just know that this exotic approach to Thanksgiving is being proposed by Jeffrey Greene, who has already introduced us to the elusive pied de cheval oyster and foraging in the Carpathians. The man knows his food. Like those earlier pieces, this one grew out of research for his next book, on wild edibles.

While Henry James observed famously in a letter that “it’s a complex fate, being an American,” and James Baldwin struggled to define what being American even means, I rarely ponder quandaries of national identity, even living here in France.  However, it’s a complex fate for anyone to explain the codified American phenomenon called Thanksgiving. My mother, in her eighties, assiduously observes American Thanksgiving, though she lives in a remote canal village in Burgundy and is obliged to make a special order for a whole turkey, usually available in France only at Christmas. I confess that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, yet this year I find myself tinkering with the near sacred menu, an act verging on sedition.

It’s an unavoidable cliché but nonetheless true: our French friends are always keen on celebrating a food-oriented fête, even when the occasion is based on the remote survival story of a band of opportunists and struggling religious separatists in the savage rigors of the New World where the devil’s agents lurked behind every rock and tree. The holiday serves as my mother’s excuse to cook a meal so copious that our friends fully experience an American habit of eating one’s way to writhing misery as if it were a mission. My mother’s version of this feast involves not only super-sizing but also putting a plethora of irresistible foods on the table.

My role, besides sous chef and busboy, is to elucidate to our polite friends the origins of America’s great feast, a story that has grown ever more jumbled and historically nuanced with the implications of the Mayflower Compact and the fate of native people. The experience of the pilgrims overcoming their period of starvation and disease has evolved into a holiday requiring an annual sacrifice of some forty million turkeys.

The “first Thanksgiving” was always presented as a kind of romanticized reduction gravy: Indians saved a wayward band of sick and starving English settlers by teaching them to bury two herring for each mound of soil into which they plant corn, squash, and beans. Following a rich harvest, the Indians and pilgrims celebrated, feasting and praying together for five days.

But as a kid growing up gathering food along the New England seashore, I always wondered what the 100-plus combined religious “saints” and entrepreneurs could have eaten to stave off starvation and fortify themselves against disease during their brutal winter. Just three months after arriving in November 1620, only half remained alive. Why didn’t the pilgrims just help themselves to limpets, snails, cattails, fern roots, clams, and mussels? Why didn’t they just eat seaweed?

My curiosity evolved into an impulsive desire to go to Plymouth for Thanksgiving. The Plimoth Plantation living museum, created by the passionate historian Henry Hornblower II in 1947 as two English style-shacks, offered decades later “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” which in a kind of delusion I imagined included dining with the Wampanoag. I called the Plimoth Plantation to reserve a place for one of three sittings on Thanksgiving Day.

“I’m sorry, sir, ‘America’s Thanksgiving Dinner’ is sold out. We still have tickets for the Thanksgiving Day Buffet and the Courtyard Buffet.”

I panicked, “Nothing for ‘America’s Thanksgiving Dinner’?”  I live in France, and I’m researching wild edibles. I’d like to talk to the Wampanoag.”

“Excuse me, you want to talk to the Wampanoag?”

“I mean at ‘America’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” A worrisome silence followed on the line, but then, “Sir? We found one remaining place for the 6 p.m. sitting. Is this acceptable?”  A ticket to “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner” included a two-day entry to the Wampanoag Village, the Plantation, and the Mayflower facsimile.

Just a few weeks before my flight, the Northeast suffered through Sandy, a gargantuan hurricane, followed by a fierce nor’easter, clearing the air for stunning New England autumnal weather, and right after pulling up to the Pilgrim Sands, my hotel on the bay with a view of Eel Pond and the Plantation, I walked the shoreline looking at the sea lettuce, bladder wrack, dulse, kelp, and thongweed. The storms, besides tossing sea rocks into parking lots and roads, had torn free many fresh-looking seaweeds. I simply picked different pieces and became absorbed in the novelty of eating seaweed amid the rocks at the very spot where leaders Bradford, Standish, and Brewster once stood and the pilgrims finally settled.

Did they imagine that sea lettuce could be used in soups and salads? It provides a complete protein as well as fiber, minerals, and vitamins. It even has calories, though granted you have to eat nearly a hundred grams of it to get the equivalent of a slice of bread with a tad of butter and jam. Seaweed even contains vitamin E thought to invigorate sperm, though this perhaps is not a high-priority asset to a famished pilgrim.

Seaweed is often considered a diet food. Even the French put seaweed, or algue, into bread and call it “ligne” for slimming their lines. But seaweed does offer nutrition. The nutritional values are far higher than garden lettuce, cabbage, carrots, or the world’s healthiest food, broccoli. My enthusiasm increased with purple ribbons of dulse, which has twice the protein value of sea lettuce. Though rubbery like all seaweed, it has a pleasant flavor: iodine, salt, slightly sweet, slightly fishy.

Soon after, I saw vast colonies of common periwinkles, the same snails sold by every fishmonger in Paris. Also, almost every rock I turned over unveiled some twenty scurrying green crabs. Euell Gibbons would be the first to remind us that the common periwinkle and the green crab didn’t arrive in America until the 1800s, no help to the pilgrims with periwinkle chowder or broiled soft-shell green crabs.

On Thanksgiving Day at low tide, I walked the length of a three-mile spit called Long Beach, one of the most beautiful sand barrier stretches I know. It provides shelter for the port of Plymouth and now enjoys environmental laws protecting dune grasses and coastal nesting. On the outer shore of Long Beach, the storms had unearthed, or unsanded, enormous sea clams. Just one or two could make a filling soup or the muscle could be sliced for Thanksgiving sashimi.

Seagulls, true master foragers, pecked apart razor clams and small crabs, leaving clean shell fragments at the waterline.  After the storms on the inner shore, at least two inches of sand and mud shifted, revealing tens of thousands of shells in their vertical position—razor clams, soft shells, and quahogs, all shellfish that had died naturally.  Everywhere clams sent up mini jets d’eau, little squirts of water, hardly keeping their location a secret. In a half hour, I could have collected enough to make a cioppino, a seafood stew.

So why did the pilgrims starve? Winter foraging parties managed only to pilfer Indian stores and steal a deer from wolves. They killed three seals, shot some birds, and caught a codfish. In truth, it’s a miracle that anyone survived the Mayflower adventure after its late summer sailing, a cracked main beam, and storms forcing them to take refuge in calmer bay waters. They scouted out a viable site with a defensible hill and rivers and ponds. They found an ideal site, Patuxet, where European disease had already killed off the local Wampanoag group. The Mayflower was forced to anchor more than a mile from the shallow shore while the few healthy pilgrims treated the sick, cleaned them, and rowed to land to gather food and build a village center.

In March, the local sachem, Massasoit, sent Samoset to make a peace pact with the pilgrims and form a union against the more powerful Narragansett tribe. Samoset boldly walked into the English encampment, making the first contact with the startled group and continuing to surprise the group by speaking their language and establishing a treaty. The next day, he brought Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, the Wampanoag whose kidnapping took him to Spain as a slave and then later to England. His adventures led to his return to Patuxet, now Plymouth, his childhood home. The story goes that he walked into the icy Eel River and grabbed eels balled up in the mud and tossed them ashore. He and Samoset lived with the pilgrims teaching them planting, fishing, foraging, and preserving. Squanto was considered a “special instrument of God” by some and an outright traitor by others. He died on November 30, 1622, one year after the “First Thanksgiving,” from an “Indian fever” or possibly poisoning. United American Indians of New England certainly might consider Squanto a traitor as they were preparing solemn speeches for what they view as their National Day of Mourning at the original Plantation site.

At “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” I was seated with a strip miner and his family from Montana and we swapped stories about wild edibles on our two separate continents. The Wampanoag were nowhere to be found. I took a moment to approach the program host dressed up as a pilgrim, “Why didn’t the pilgrims eat seaweed if they were starving?”

This pilgrim was courteous, veteran of thousands of dingbat questions. He responded as if we were in the 17th century, “I shan’t survive on seaweed, my good feller.” I suppose he could have added, “It’s diet food, after all.” Still, certainly the coastal tribes had plenty of uses for seaweed: baking oysters, fertilizer, and food, both dried and cooked.

I came back to France inspired by my Plimoth Plantation experience. First, I announced that I would plant a Wampanoag garden in the spring if I could find herring that were not smoked or pickled, and, second, I would invent a new dish for Thanksgiving using seaweed. I gave eels serious consideration, as some experts have concluded that eels, with their fatty nutritious flesh, should be the main Thanksgiving dish since with the help of Squanto they became a major staple. So naturally I wondered what the eel equivalent of 40 million turkeys would be? But I also remembered making Thanksgiving in the throes of student poverty—the closest a middle-class kid comes to “starving time.” With the only cash I had, I bought a turkey, stuffed it with a spinach and oyster dressing, and, poorly equipped, roasted it in a Wok. I invited two similarly impoverished friends, and the success of my Thanksgiving offering astonished them nearly as much as it did me. So why not try a seaweed dressing? I made a dressing with wakame, dulse, kelp, wild mushrooms, tofu, oysters, ginger, garlic, and spices and tried stuffing a chicken first. The dish would be served with an Asian sauce.

My mother, my wife Mary, and I were so delighted with the results that I was further inspired with leftovers. I decided to use them to make sushi rolls that included some “Panko” fried oysters. I also experimented with Turkey just to see if the flavors were synergistic. Ultimately my Thanksgiving dinner would include up to four different seaweeds. My suggestion of using fresh seaweed and other types of seafood like limpets left Mary’s and my Mother’s brows furrowed. To them, fresh seaweed and limpets sounded more like last chance foods.

Jeffrey Greene is the author of The Golden-Bristled Boar. He is currently at work on a book on wild edibles.