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Native Food Science for Thanksgiving

SMART Science

November 4, 2014
By Libby and Robert Strong and Richard Pollack - Contributing Writers , OVParent

Thanksgiving features foods that were enjoyed long before the first pilgrims stepped on to this continent. Pumpkins are an original American food. The wild ancestor of today's pumpkins goes back to the Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilizations. The pumpkin already had spread northward from Central and South America by the time European settlers reached the New World. Since the time of the settlers' arrival, the pumpkin has been grown and used in many ways. Other native foods include corn, other squash besides pumpkin, beans and various types of berries.

Pumpkin Pie History

Pumpkins are perhaps best known for their role in the holiday season's pumpkin pies and other deserts. We now have many recipes for pumpkin pie, but the first pumpkin pie did not have crust as we know it today. The "pie" probably cooked in the pumpkin itself. The early pilgrims may have served pumpkin "pie:" at the second Thanksgiving. The pilgrims had received pumpkins from the nearby Native Americans, so pumpkin was definitely available and likely on the menu. These pilgrims also may have used other ingredients they had available to make the "pie." Maple syrup was perhaps used in their recipe.

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To make a pumpkin pie much like the pilgrims may have made, try the following recipe. Be sure to get an adult to help you. This type of pie was also a favorite of the first president of the United States, George Washington.

Baked Whole Pumpkin

(Recipe and information from the cookbook "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American" by Jeff Smith)

1 pumpkin, 2 to 3 kilograms (5-7 pounds)

6 whole eggs

500 ml (about 2 cups) whipping cream (canned evaporated milk may be substituted)

125 ml (0.5 cup) brown sugar

15 ml (1 tablespoon) molasses

2.5 ml (0.5 teaspoon) nutmeg

5 ml (1.0 teaspoon) cinnamon

30 ml (2.0 tablespoons) butter

Here is what you will need to do:

1) Cut the "lid" of the pumpkin like you are going to make a jack-o'-lantern. Be sure to save the lid.

2) Take the seeds out of the pumpkin. (You can save them to toast later. Native Americans loved the rich toasted pumpkin seeds.)

3) Mix together the rest of the ingredients, except the butter.

4) Place the pumpkin in a baking dish and fill the pumpkin with the mixture.

5) Top the mixture with the butter.

6) Cover the pumpkin with the "lid" you saved.

7) Bake your pumpkin "pie" for 1 to 1.5 hours at 177 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit) or until the mixture is set like a custard.

Serve the pumpkin pie straight from the pumpkin at your Thanksgiving table, scraping some of the cooked pumpkin out with each serving of custard.

The eggs in the custard are important in the science of making custard. The proteins in the eggs are like long coiled strings. These strings sort of unwind during cooking due to the heat. The strands of protein attach to one another. This creates a net of protein strands that traps the milk or cream and makes the custard set. Yum!

Pumpkin Nutrition

Both the seeds of the pumpkin and the pumpkin itself are actually good for you! The seeds contain essential amino acids (these build proteins) and zinc (a mineral that is good for your body). Pumpkin seeds also contain iron (a mineral) and fiber (good for digestion). The bright orange color of the pumpkin lets us know that it is high in beta-carotene, which changes to vitamin A (good for vision among other things). Pumpkin is also high in potassium. The compounds in pumpkins called anti-oxidants help strengthen our immune systems and keep us healthy. Pumpkin by itself (without sugar, cream or eggs!) is also a low-calorie snack. Try cooking it with a little cinnamon or other spices. It is also very tasty in muffins, pancakes and other foods.

Other "good for you" Native American Foods - If some dietitians had their way, pumpkin and some other native foods would be on the menu many days a year, not just Thanksgiving. This is because many of these foods are actually very good for you. For example, one native food, corn, contains vitamins C and K and chemicals that may help fight cancer. Native people used corn in soup, cornbread and even popcorn!

Berries of various kinds also played a part in Native American diets. Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries may all help prevent heart disease and contain large amounts of vitamin C. Some berries (with seeds) also contain fiber that helps with digestion.

Beans of many kinds grew here in the Americas long before the settlers came. The black, red and pinto bean are loaded with nutrition including potassium, B vitamins and folic acid. These beans are also an excellent source of protein and fiber. Beans are also cholesterol free.

For Thanksgiving dinner this year, try the pumpkin pie recipe in this article, but also make some other dishes with native foods. Try some corn or bean recipes. Add some berries in salads or desserts. When you eat your Thanksgiving meal this year, think about the food we eat and enjoy that have been growing on this continent for thousands of years. Maybe we should appreciate them even more every day, not just on Thanksgiving.

- Libby and Robert Strong and Richard Pollack work with the SMART-Center, a hands-on science outreach and education organization in the northern Ohio Valley, the headquarters of which is located at the SMART Centre Market, 30 22nd St., Wheeling.



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