The Potluck: A Native American Thanksgiving Tradition?

We’ve all been to one, some of us probably feeling slightly jaded about being pressured to contribute a dish that will surely be outdone by that one magnificent chef that attends every celebration. But where does the tradition of the potluck come from?

A common myth is that the word derives from the Potlatch feasts practiced by Native American Societies in the Pacific Northwest. But according to most dictionaries, the term originated in 16th Century England, to describe unplanned meetings in which you would eat whatever was available, perhaps leftovers from a previous meal warmed up in a pot. If you were hungry, you would have the “luck of the pot”.

Of course, this is not how the term is used today in the United States. For us, a potluck is a planned event in which all of the guests are expected to contribute a dish. This different application of the term is often attributed to Native American influence. After all, potlatches were similar in that the hosts would invite guests to a potlatch and provide them with food, with the expectation that some guests—the elite ones—would reciprocate the act by holding their own celebration at a later date.

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Fishing utensils and serving dishes used by the Kwakuitl People

The potlatch served two purposes, one was to provide the host with an opportunity to show off their wealth and status, while the other was to help determine trade relationships and hierarchies between different settlements. You know that one person who tries to out-do everyone else with an elaborate dish? Well, that’s kind of how potlatches worked. The more elaborate the celebration, the greater prestige it brought to the host.

In many cases these displays could take a much more deliberate form than a little over-achieving. For example, in our McGovern Hall of the Americas we have beautiful sets of masks and capes. These costumes were worn during dance rituals at potlatches. The right to wear these garments was inherited though, so participating in the dances was a way of showing off your status in society. Chieftain (or “Tribal”) societies are not egalitarian, and the complex fishing societies of the Pacific Northwest had strict social hierarchies that were reinforced by these rituals. Hierarchies were so strict that in many cases one had to choose their spouse from a particular, high ranking family, like how it was in medieval Europe.

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Kwakuitl ceremonial dance ensemble.

Probably the most interesting form of gaining prestige was the breaking of coppers. Coppers are little flat, shield-shaped pieces of hammered copper, that acted almost like currency. Only the highest ranking members of settlements could own them, and they were extremely valuable, but their value was purely symbolic. Coppers would be traded during potlatches, sometimes enormous quantities of goods would be traded for a single copper. If a chief felt that another chief had dishonored him, he might break a piece off of his own copper in the presence of his guest. This was a great challenge, because the other chief would then be expected to hold his own potlatch and break a piece off of his own copper in reciprocity. If he could not do that, he would lose prestige.

Now, does anybody recognize this sort of mentality in some of the Thanksgiving dinners they go to? It’s perfectly normal for people to desire to be admired for all they have worked hard to accomplish, and sometimes family dinners provide a setting that seems appropriate for that. Rather than impressing other village leaders, though, they just want to impress those they love.

It is hard to say whether or not the American potluck tradition was really inspired by Native American feasts, because similar traditions are carried out all over the world. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Sports Science: Football

The fourth Thursday in November is the perfect time to spend time with family, eat some home-cooked comfort food, and watch grown men throw around an inflated pig bladder.

That’s right, folks; the world’s first American football was actually an inflated pig bladder, hence the nickname “pigskin.” Don’t worry, modern footballs are made of leather or vulcanized rubber, but the shape of a football remains the same as it’s ever been, lending itself to an interesting discussion of physics.

My sophomore year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, my physics professor’s lecture the week of Thanksgiving featured two balls, a red rubber kickball and an American football. She asked us to predict how the balls would bounce. The spherical kickball was easy; the American football was not.

Football shape

The ovoid shape combined with the two sharp points at each end mean that the ball can bounce in just about any direction at any angle depending on its orientation as it is falling and what part of the football makes contact with the ground. That’s why every football coach I ever had drilled us on just falling on the ball instead of trying to catch it or scoop it up; it is extraordinarily difficult to predict just which way the ball will bounce! These bounces often manifest on plays when a bouncing ball is live, like a fumble, an onside kick or following a punt.

As the game evolved, so did the football itself. As you can imagine, inflating animal bladders can be inconsistent; now, the NFL football is standardized at about 11 inches long from tip to tip and a circumference of about 28 inches around the center. Those bladders could also be difficult to grip, so the modern football has a coarse, pebbled texture as well as white laces in the center.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Because of its shape, the football cuts through the air most easily when spinning around its longest axis, called a spiral. This spiral minimizes air resistance and allows the ball to move in a more predictable parabolic motion.

A common misconception is that the spiral motion allows the ball to travel farther, but this idea falls apart with basic physics. When a ball is initially thrown, there is a set quantity of total energy in the system. That set amount cannot be increased or decreased, just changed from one form to another according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. The spinning motion of a football in the air requires kinetic energy, so every Joule of kinetic energy required to keep the ball spinning is less energy dedicated to the football’s motion.

Instead, the spiral is important because of a concept called angular momentum. A spinning football behaves like a gyroscope; a ball will maintain roughly the same orientation while travelling. This makes the football’s movement from point to point easier to track and predict for a player.step0So when tossing around the ol’ pigskin Thanksgiving Day, make sure you grip the ball with the laces as you throw! What works best for me is to put my middle finger, ring finger and pinkie finger on alternating laces at the front of the ball (as pictured above).

When throwing a football, it is important to generate the force for the ball from your legs. If you are right-handed like me, stand sideways with your right leg behind you. Push off against the ground with your back leg and turn your body to throw as you do so. Bring the football backwards and then forwards over your shoulder, allowing the ball to roll off of your fingers straight. No need for any wrist twisting, as the ball should naturally move in a spiral. (See proper form below.)step1Step one: feet shoulder width apart, hands meet on the ball.step2Step two: weight on your back foot, bring the ball back, wrist out.step3

Step three: throw the ball, wrist in. Allow the ball to roll off of your fingers, but keep your wrist straight and stable. Release the ball over your shoulder. Remember, it’s not a baseball. step4Step four: follow through after the release.

Whether you’re facing the New Orleans Saints or the neighbors across the street, the principles of physics are crucial to your football team coming out on top. May the forces be with you! Happy Thanksgiving!

The (Real) First Thanksgiving: the Wampanoag Perspective

Most of us know the story. Seeking a place to establish a Puritan church, the Pilgrims arrive on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and have a hard winter, so the Indians teach them how to grow their own food over the next year. The following harvest, they hold a huge feast to honor the Indians with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and celebrate their new-found friends and the peace between them, and we’ve kept that tradition ever since. But most of this isn’t true, and every tale has more than one perspective.

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Our storybook version, featuring a giant turkey, grapes, and a majority of Pilgrims.

To the Wampanoag, the Native American people who aided the Pilgrims, things happened in a very different way. Their story begins like this. The Wampanoag had seen whites before, but when the English Pilgrims arrived with women and children, they didn’t see them as a threat. The winter was hard, that is true. From hiding, the Wampanoag watched 46 of the original 102 settlers perish from cold and hunger. March 16 the following year, a Monhegan from Maine named Samoset made contact with the Pilgrims, and the next day returned with Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, a Wampanoag who had learned English. Squanto befriended the English and taught them how to fish, how to plant corn, and how to hunt for nuts and berries. As a result of their friendship, the Pilgrims entered into a peace treaty with Massassoit, the Wampanoag chief, and heeded the advice of their new friends.

In September or October, their crops had a good yield, and they decided to hold a traditional English harvest feast. Historians draw the story of the first thanksgiving from two accounts, one of which was written by Pilgrim Edward Winslow. His account mentions the Pilgrims “sent four men on fowling,” meaning bird hunting, and that “we exercised our arms,” meaning gun fire. These men did hunt for “turkey,” but the word referred to any kind of bird, not necessarily the centerpiece of the contemporary Thanksgiving table.

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A more accurate representation, but still featuring a turkey at the center of the table and just six Wampanoag.

The Wampanoag weren’t invited to this feast originally, according to Tim Turner, Cherokee, manager of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite and co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours.

“Most historians believe what happened was Massassoit got word there was a tremendous amount of gun fire coming from the Pilgrim village,” Turner said, “so he thought they were being attacked and he was going to bear aid.”

Massassoit came with 90 of his warriors, prepared to do battle. Since there was none, the Pilgrims invited their new friends to their feast. However, there wasn’t enough to feed everyone, so the warriors went out and brought back five deer, their contribution, according to Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimouth Plantation.

The feast lasted three days and likely included pumpkin, fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams and plums in addition to the poultry and venison. There was no flour, so likely no pies or pastries. We can and should imagine a warm, three-day feast between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims, a picture of unlikely togetherness and a celebration that marks a large part of the American identity, but consider that there were 91 Indians and around 50 Pilgrims. Re-think that long table surrounded by settlers with a few Indians thrown in, and forget that it was annual tradition.

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This representation is the most accurate, featuring a majority of Wampanoag, no turkey, and a large gathering.

Thanksgiving had been proclaimed by governors and presidents in the 13 colonies at one time or another, but as the country grew, many U.S. citizens didn’t feel it was appropriate. It wasn’t until magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for the national holiday in her writing, an effort bordering on obsession. For 40 years, Hale pushed for the establishment of a Thanksgiving Day, publishing editorials in Boston Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book. (Incidentally, she is also the author of the children’s song Mary Had a Little Lamb.)Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving, but it still wasn’t what we celebrate today.

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Sarah Josepha Hale

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, the holiday was pushed forward a week to create a longer Christmas shopping season, but public uproar convinced him to move it back to its original date. In 1941, Congress named Thanksgiving Day a legal holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

This Thanksgiving, and every Thanksgiving following it, give gratitude for this wonderful country we live in. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and all the things and people you have in your life. Give thanks for whatever fortune has bestowed upon you this year. Give thanks to those who fought and died to build this nation. Give thanks for being American, a wonderful, unique identity. Love your neighbor. Offer second chances. Make a new friend. Try to understand someone better. Buy things. Watch football. Because that’s what this holiday is all about.

But most of all, remember the whole story.

For more about the lives of indigenous Americans, visit the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. From our table to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

With Soil, Make Me Wine: The Dirt on Growing Great Grapes

I like wine. And I make my own. Not huge batches, mind you. Just about 30 bottles per month in the winter months. I learned the hard way the chemistry of wine. If you let the wine get too hot while it’s fermenting, it can radically alter the taste.  I let one of my batches get above 95 degrees a few times this summer. I was making a port and the flavor was ruined. The entire batch came out tasting like welches grape juice. Flat, tasteless, 20 percent alcohol-by-volume grape juice. I only inflicted a few bottles on my friends.

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Good wine is a combination of science and art. There is the botany of the grapes. The meteorology of the climate. And the pedology. What’s pedology you ask? It’s the study of soil.  And since it is the International Year of Soils, we are going to get down and dirty with the effect of soil on one of my favorite drinks.

The ground beneath us is incredibly active. There are millions of different types of bacteria, fungi, and arthropods that give dirt everywhere its characteristics. If you’ve been taking the museum’s class on gardening and landscaping, you’ll understand the importance of the health of soil for plants. To briefly sum it up, good soil makes good crops. A shocking concept. But beyond that, what effects can the soil have on wine?

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The effect of soil and climate on wine is called terroir. Wine tasters with a good palates say they can discern the flavor of the soil in the wine. Scientists have begun to examine a comparison of terroir to wines in an attempt to explain this phenomenon but so far have not been able to. That doesn’t mean that the flavor of the soil isn’t in the wine; it just means more scientists will have to drink more good wines. That’s a study I want to be a part of!

Good soils will encourage the vines to produce grapes instead of growing more vine. So the best soils need to provide lots of water at just the right time and then be able to drain it away. And the soil needs to keep the right nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium available to the vine, which can help intensify the flavors in the grape.

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Tasting wine is about more than just “good” or “bad.” With an entire family of varietals out there in the world, it’s about what gives the wine its identity. Fans of wine, like me, like to get closer to the wine and the wine-making process through the quality of its flavor. And, oddly enough, tasting isn’t just about the taste. Wine Folly offers a five-step process to tasting wine, and explains a few things to be aware of. Here’s the basic process outlined in their blog.

  1. Look at the color. This goes deeper than just red and white. Ask yourself how it compares to other reds or whites in color. Gauge whether you can see through it. With practice, you can gauge whether the wine is bold, rich or viscous.
  2. Smell the wine, but swirl it around first to aerate it. Put the wine on the table and move the base in little circles, then shove your nose into the glass and take a big whiff. What do you smell?
  3. Taste the wine. Get enough of the wine to coat your entire tongue and roll it around in your mouth to maximize contact with all your taste buds. Don’t just think about flavor; think about texture and body, how it feels in your mouth. Does it have an alcoholic burn? Do the flavors match the smell?
  4. Decide whether to spit or swallow. You may have to drive later, or you may have 20 wines to taste and want to stay sober enough to think about all of them. If you hate the wine, spit it out. If you don’t want to waste it, swallow it. There’s no right or wrong choice.
  5. Think about the wine and formulate your own conclusions. Wine Folly states, “Wine tasting is a head game. Confidence and bold assertion can often make someone look like a pro.”

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Join us for a Periscope wine tasting with local experts, curators, and myself on Wednesday, November 18 at 3 p.m. You’ll see some live wine tasting where we’ll talk about terroir and suggest some wine pairings for Thanksgiving. And to celebrate the International Year of Soils, join us for a film screening of the Symphony of the Soil at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre Dec. 1 at 6 p.m.