December 21,Forefather’s Day and Plymouth Succotash

Since the Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, today at Ancestors in Aprons we are celebrating Forefather’s Day instead of Christmas, with a recipe for Succotash.

Pilgrims Going to Church

Pilgrims Going to Church, watercolor painting by George Henry Broughton (1833-1905)

Boston Globe reports on the early celebrations of Forefather’s Day (long before Thanksgiving was an official holiday), when notables like John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster gave speeches.

In 1769 the holiday organizers ate a meal that was undeniably New England, but not much like today’s Thanksgiving feast—they consumed, according to contemporary records, “a large baked Indian wortleberry pudding, a dish of sauquetach (succotash), a dish of clams, a dish of sea fowl, a dish of cod fish and eels, an apple pie, a course of cranberry tarts and cheese.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, succotash is a simple, tasty vegetable dish combining beans and corn. When in doubt what to serve for dinner, dump a can of green beans and a can of corn in a pot–maybe add a little diced onion and butter–and you’ve got succotash. That’s the way my mother did it.

The dish was understandably popular during World War II and the Great Depression, during times of food shortages because the ingredients were cheap and combining corn and beans provides complete protein.

The corn part is immutable, although lima beans are more traditional than green beans. Even though they are not correct historically, because they were not native to North America. The name comes from the Narrangassett and Massachusetts peoples–sohquttahhash— or “msickquatash” (depending on what source you believe), which meant broken corn kernels or maybe “cooked corn”.

But I was totally surprised when I was roaming through the Pilgrim Hall Museum site and discovered not only a Succotash that I did not recognize, but also a holiday that I had never heard of. Apparently I’m not alone,

In an essay accompanying the recipe, William Talbot, speaking of the Pilgrim Museum, writes,

Thanksgiving belongs to America Forefathers Day is ours. It’s so well hidden that even many Plimothians don’t know about it.They can live in the town and…still think succotash is corn and lima beans. We may deplore their ignorance, but Forefather Day has not been engulfed by the mass culture.
Unlike Williamsburg we can’t stick fancy fruit above the doors of the Pilgrim Village and decorate the Fort Meeting House with laurel and pine. The best we could do is reenact the event when Governor Bradford found some of the strangers playing a game on Christmas day and took away their ball.

For some reason the image of Governor Bradford breaking up the ball game cracks me up.  (As I’m sure you know the reference to “strangers” means those passengers on the Mayflower and other Pilgrim ships who were not members of the church, but were tolerated in Plymouth because they had needed skills.) The Pilgrims came to the new world so they could worship as they pleased without being harassed by government. But woe to anyone in the colonies who did not agree with their creed.

So why is Forefather’s Day celebrated?

Here’s William Talbot again:

We think what they did was worth doing and worth remembering too. We look at the cold waters of the harbor on Forefathers Day and think of them in an open boat heading toward land.It’s worth the effort to get together with others who care about the Pilgrims.

And HOW is it celebrated?  partly by eating succotash–much more complex than lima beans and corn, and probably close to a stew that the Pilgrim forefathers might have eaten. (Minus the food processor, of course.)

So invite one hundred of your closest friends over on December 21, the day that the Pilgrims landed, and serve up Plymouth Succotash. (Wortleberry pie and sea fowl optional.)

Plymouth Succotash

(Traditionally served on Forefathers Day)
For 100 people or 150 as a first course

  • 25 lbs. gray corned beef
  • 5 5-lb. fowl
  • 5 lbs. lean salt pork
  • 6 lbs. dry white navy beans
  • 10 lbs. boiling potatoes
  • 10 lbs. white green-top turnips
  • 20 15-oz. cans whole hominy

Put all the meats in cold water and boil until tender, then drain, reserving the
skimmed broth as stock to cook the vegetables. Bone and dice the meats, and
reserve. The beans take a long, slow cooking in some of the fat broth until they can be pureed in the food processor. The puree is then reserved, and care must
be taken to cool both beans and broth lest they sour, which is a frequent disaster with this dish. The potatoes, white turnip and hulled corn should be cooked in the broth.

Before serving, mix meat and vegetables together and add the bean puree as it is heated. Be careful it neither burns nor sours–small batches help.It reheats particularly well and can be frozen.

Recipe from Pilgrim Museum web site PDF.

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