Burton on the Bay:

Talking Turkey -- And Stuffing

Over the river and through the

woods to Grandmother’s house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

over the white and drifted snow …

We don’t always go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving any more — though often Grandma, along with Grandpa, comes to us. We might cross rivers though seldom wind through the woods, horses are replaced by horsepower — and when’s the last time you witnessed any snow on Thanksgiving, never mind enough to create drifts or even suitable depths for a sleigh?

But some things never change. Thanksgiving is a time for families, stuffed bellies and birds. And for this of all holidays, the turkey reigns supreme — though the bird is different.

The turkey of today is genetically engineered, top heavy and loaded with fat and flesh, primarily in the breast — so much so it can’t walk in the regal style of its ancestors. That’s not healthy for the bird, but it’s not designed to live to old age. It’s not too healthy for us who eat it, either, though one can’t complain about the taste.


What a Feast It Was

They didn’t have cardiologists back in 1621 when, according to the lore of the Pilgrims, the first Thanksgiving was observed. Perhaps celebrated is a more appropriate word because back then any day off was cause for celebration.

Gov. William Bradford decided there would be a Day of Thanksgiving, and while wild turkeys were undoubtedly on the menu, they shared entree honors with venison, roast pig, ham, ruffed grouse, cod, salmon, striped bass, oysters, duck, geese and let’s not forget — though I’d prefer to — baked eels.

There probably was also Indian corn, stewed pumpkins, corn bread, dried berries and from the bogs, cranberries — plus, from the meadows and forests, salad herbs. In addition, for the menfolk, there could have been ale brewed in wooden tubs.

It had to be a big spread. After all there had been hunger, much sickness and many deaths, before crops were harvested and livestock raised big enough to slaughter. And there was work, work and work.

It was decreed that each man build his own house. Bradford decided men would work more hastily on their own dwellings than if all villagers pitched in.

But that first Thanksgiving and many thereafter was a community effort at Plymouth Plantation, Cape Cod. Invited were the Indians, primarily Wampanoags, who helped the new arrivals with lessons on such things as harvesting herbs in the wild and raising corn. Let’s not deny credit to the legendary Squanto.

The corn crop was so bountiful that each person could draw from the community gardens a peck of cornmeal a week.

What an occasion that feast must have been. It continued for three days as curious Indians, after eating their fill, smoked their pipes and watched in wonderment as children played pillow pushing. Two would sit on logs facing each other and try to pound the other off with pillows stuffed from the down of waterfowl.

Men would pitch the bar (a big log) to decide who could toss it the farthest. There were tugs of war, jigging matches to determine which young ladies could dance to the piper the longest, dances and songfests involving old English folk songs. And there was prayer.

The Indians probably got into the act, sang their chants and performed dances with deer hooves jingling from their leggings and beads clicking from their necklaces, belts and vests. So much fun, small wonder they decided to continue the celebration for a couple more days.


Other Times, Other Tastes

Maybe that’s why, as years passed, Thanksgiving was observed on a Thursday: a long weekend was needed, three days of partying and feasting, then a day to rest.

Presidents Washington and Monroe proclaimed days of Thanksgiving. Lincoln declared there would be two — one of them the last Thursday in November. Now, officially we’re back to one, the fourth Thursday of the month.

With few exceptions hereabouts, the hunt for food is not in the waters of the Chesapeake, the marshes or woodlands, it’s in the supermarkets. Rarely is a wild turkey the centerpiece, though in Maryland today we probably have more truly wild gobblers than did the colonists of the early 1600s.

The same can be said for deer, but who has venison on the holiday these times? Back then, the ruffed grouse was so plentiful and unwary, lore has it that it could be knocked from roosts in trees with long poles. Wild Canada geese abounded; today a moratorium on them is in place.

Ducks aren’t really plentiful, and among many people, tastes have changed. The fowl has to be a plump turkey with sufficient white meat of the burgeoning breasts for everyone — with enough left over for sandwiches, salads and croquets for days to come.

My forefathers probably weren’t around for that first big holiday. Great, great (and I can’t quite figure out how many more greats to add) grandfather Balthasar DeWolf, son of Baron DeWolf of Livonia (now part of Latvia and Estonia), arrived here from England early enough that he had a son, Edward, born in 1645 in Old Lyme, Conn., which seems like a fitting place and time for early Thanksgivings.

The first DeWolfs might have invited and entertained some Indians, but in our times Thanksgiving is looked upon by Native Americans something like Columbus Day: the beginning of the end. Some Wampanoags gather at Plymouth Rock on the holiday not to celebrate but to observe a Day of Mourning. Like the camel in the Arab’s tent, the newcomers drove them out.


A Stuffing for Any Bird

Somewhere along the line from the DeWolfs to the Stones to the Chittendons, the Greers, Bradfields, Crippens, Barbers and eventually the Burtons, there came a recipe for the stuffing of a turkey, whether wild or domestic, or other fowl. It was passed on to me when I bagged my first wild turkey about 50 years ago, by my grandmother, Clara Burton, born in 1871 in Cherokee County, Iowa.


4 cups ground cranberries
1 cup chopped celery tops
1/2 cup chopped parsley
10 T butter
3/4 cup finely chopped dill pickles
4 to 6 T chopped onion
3/4 cup (or slightly less or more, depending on taste, I prefer less) sugar
16 cups bread cubes
3 t salt
1/4 t pepper

Cook cranberries, parsley, and onion in butter in large cast iron skillet for 5 minutes. Stir in sugar, add bread cubes and remaining ingredients. Cool before stuffing.

If you’re interested in something different, give it a try. Happy Thanksgiving.

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VolumeVI Number 46
November 19-25, 1998
New Bay Times