The original meal shared by European settlers and the Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was basically the OG in sustainable eating: Food was locally sourced and in season.
Susan Evans McClure, former director of Smithsonian Food History Programs at the National Museum of American History, says that a 1621 letter includes details about the governor of Plymouth Colony sending men to hunt wildfowl while the Wampanoag brought deer. The wildfowl, she says, was likely goose or duck; turkey was hard to catch and tough to eat.
Other “local” foods would have been cranberries and pumpkins, Evans says. The Plimoth Patuxet museum’s Kate LaPrad adds that additional menu items could have included squash and corn—which the Wampanoag cultivated—plus wild asparagus, onions, and nuts.
Unlike the settlers and Indians, most people in the United States are not “eating local”—that is, eating food grown and harvested within 100 miles of where it’s purchased. In fact, local food makes up just 3 percent of all food sales nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
You probably know that local foods can be healthier: They’re fresher and often grown chemical-free. But they’re also better for the environment. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture calculated that out of 30 “fresh produce” items, just two traveled less than 500 miles to reach a grocery store. Thanksgiving staples like squash and pumpkin traveled on average 1,000 and 500 miles, respectively. And studies have shown that transporting food can account for 20 percent of carbon emissions; local food creates as much as 20 times less carbon dioxide.
And eating locally might be more important than ever this year: Avian flu has caused turkey shortages across the country; drought in the Northeast could lead to a cranberry shortage as well. Here are some suggestions on how your family can replace traditional but non-local Thanksgiving food with something closer to home—and how to get your kids involved.
Traditional table topping: Cranberry sauce
Where they’re local: Most cranberries are grown in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, but they’re also harvested in Oregon, Washington State, and New Jersey.
If they’re not: If you’ve got a family recipe for awesome cranberry sauce but don’t live in cranberry country, food historian Sandra Oliver suggests looking for tangy or sweet local options at farmers’ markets. Think about cherries in the Midwest and Northeast, persimmons in the South, and prickly pear cactus in the Southwest.
Raise a local foodie: If you’re shopping at a grocery store, challenge kids to find where the food came from, either on the packaging or produce sticker; if exploring a farmers market, encourage them to ask the vendor. Then use Google Maps to calculate the distance from the home state to you. Compare all your menu items to see which is the most local.
Traditional table topping: Turkey
Where they’re local: Turkeys are raised on farms across the country, but the biggest turkey-producing states are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, Iowa, and California. To make sure yours is ethically sourced, look for labels like USDA Certified Organic, Certified Humane, and Animal Welfare Certified. You can also shop from a local farm or market.
If they’re not: Like turkeys, chickens and pigs are raised on farms all over the country; look for a farm near you or an organic label at the market. If you want to be really OG, try something from the water—the Plymouth diners likely had eel and oysters at their feast. Local West Coast options include salmon, cod, crab, or halibut; for East Coast eaters, lobster, clams, oysters, and scallops; and in the Midwest you can try freshwater trout, bass, and catfish. Want to go meat-free? Fall mushrooms are available almost everywhere in the country. Try something like mushroom pot pie or a mushroom Wellington.
Raise a local foodie: Kids can help look at the Farmer’s Almanac or Take Me Fishing to figure out which fish are local to your area. Then your family can check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide to figure out what’s sustainable.
Traditional table topping: Sweet potatoes
Where it’s local: North Carolina is the largest producer of sweet potatoes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They also grow locally in California, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
If they’re not: If you want to replicate a sweet potato casserole, try butternut squash, which is grown in almost every state in the fall and mixes easily with other ingredients. For something whole to cover in butter and brown sugar, grab some carrots, which are grown across the country. (The Plymouth feasters also ate carrots—but they were likely yellow, red, violet, dark purple, or even white.)
Traditional table topping: Pumpkins
Where they’re local: Pumpkins are grown throughout the U.S., but a few states grow far more than others: Illinois, California, Indiana, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And 80 percent of the country’s pumpkin pie filling is made from pumpkins grown in Illinois.
If they’re not: Looking for an alternative to canned pumpkin without the hassle of a real one? Try other types of squash—some cooks say they actually taste better in a pie than pumpkin. (Yep—pumpkins are a type of squash.) Folks in the Northeast or Midwest can look for local butternut squash; other great pie-making options in different regions include winter varieties like crookneck squash (South), jarrahdale blue hubbard (Southwest), Cinderella (Midwest), and Long Island cheese (Northeast).
Raise a local foodie: Let kids pick out their favorite shapes and colors of gourds in your area, then have them decorate them as turkeys or other critters for fun centerpieces. Or turn a yellow squash into a lightbulb (kind of) with this kid-friendly experiment.
Traditional table topping: Brussels sprouts
Where they’re local: Most brussels sprouts are grown in California, but farms in New York and Kentucky produce them, too.
If they’re not: Whether they’re sizzling in bacon or roasted with butter sauce, brussels sprouts are a trendy addition to today’s Thanksgiving table. But if you’re looking for a more local option, think about subbing sprouts in your favorite recipe with crunchy, closer-to-home vegetables. Broccoli grows in Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, Maine, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, and Florida. Try cauliflower in the South and Midwest or bok choy in the Southwest. On the East Coast, think about local green beans.
Raise local foodies: Even smaller towns usually have a community garden. These can be great places for children to learn about the growing process and harvest their own produce.