Life

A Native American Chef Grapples With Thanksgiving And Tries To Create An Authentic Tasting Menu


Ralph Ordaz

This is being republished from 2017 because… it’s too good not to.

I.

The pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower was a disaster. The self-proclaimed religious refugees hired a bad crew and had little-to-no luck on their way to Virginia. High winds and choppy seas, low supplies, months-long delays, and damage to the boat’s main beams all led to a terrible Atlantic crossing for the 130-odd people on board. By November 11th, they couldn’t take any more and anchored in Cape Cod — far north of their intended destination, the Virginia Colony.

The land they arrived at had recently been ravaged by an imported disease that killed off 95-percent of the local population. The desperate English settlers robbed graves and food stores to sustain themselves. They stayed on their ship through that first winter and severe cold temperatures and constant hunger took its toll. By the time spring rolled around only 53 of the original passengers were left alive.

By March of 1621 the English disembarked and began living in the empty houses of the decimated local village. It wasn’t a great start.

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The English luck turned around when they met a Patuxet man named Squanto — who’d already experienced a lifetime’s worth of war, slavery, and worldwide adventure. Squanto and what was left of the Wampanoag bonded with the English. They traded supplies for food and taught the English the best ways to fish the bay and farm the land. By the time harvest season rolled around in autumn, things were looking up for everyone. The Wampanoag had people to work with after their European disease-fueled apocalypse, and the English pilgrims had a real settlement.

Sometime around the end of September, the pilgrims decided they were in good enough shape to host a harvest festival with their newly bonded friends and saviors. Harvest festivals, or Thanksgivings, were common practice already amongst the Spanish, French, and Virginia colonists, so the Plymouth event wasn’t anything new. It took the self-mythologizing American spirit to make it worthy of a holiday.

The 50 remaining English and about 90 Wampanoag gathered for a three day feast, to celebrate the bounty of their collective labor. The meal included wildfowl, shellfish, cod, corn, squash and pumpkin, and five whole deer. The Wampanoag and English had toiled side by side throughout the year, and this was the fruit of that union. They gathered around bonfires, hearths, and tables to celebrate what they’d accomplished together as a diversified unit of people fighting to survive in an uncertain world.

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II.

The first ten years of my life I lived in a hippy town at the end of the road, off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. My identity was never really anything I thought about. I was a boy who watched Transformers and G.I. Joe, just like the neighbors. I went fishing with my dad in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and hunting with my family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. Being Indian was never anything I thought about more than to wonder whether I’d ever grow my hair long, like all the warriors I saw in the history books.

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