Friday, November 26, 2010

Five Kernels of Corn


If you visited any grocery market this week, you knew Thanksgiving approached. Crowded aisles. Full carts. Smiles exchanged. Shoppers looked for everything from poultry and pumpkin spices to turkey trussing twine. Near me, two men dressed in work clothes had a cart full of cooking oil and told me they were frying a turkey at their shop that day. They pointed to a stack of yams and asked, “Is that a sweet potato?” I hope their turkey and trimmings turned out tasty.

The festive atmosphere in the market got me in the mood to refresh my knowledge of the first Pilgrims in our country. Their history of sharing among those-who-had and those-who-had-not helped created one of our countries favorite holidays, Thanksgiving.

On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower made its way from Plymouth, England to Cape Cod, where the first Pilgrims stepped ashore on November 11 of that year. During the two months aboard the ship, the 102 passengers experienced both hardships and hope.

Other than the usual seasickness, the first half of the voyage was smooth sailing. At the well documented site tells of one sailor who ridiculed the passengers “cursing them daily” saying he looked forward to throwing their dead bodies overboard. The first crew or passenger to fall ill was that sailor, his curse falling back on himself.

Aboard the Mayflower, three wives were pregnant, and Mrs. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth at sea, and named her son Oceanus. The second month of the sea trip found the crew and passengers in danger as they encountered many storms. Twenty-five-year old John Howland, thrown overboard when the ship rolled, grabbed a topsail rope and hauled himself back toward the ship where the crew hoisted him aboard with a boathook. Two of the passengers perished with colds before the ship sighted land. Others died the next winter.

Early 1600 explorers found Native Americans hospitable and friendly, willing to trade and share what they had, until greedy men captured some of the natives taking them as slaves. Captain Thomas Hunt captured 24 Native Americans to take back to Spain. One of those later nicknamed “Squanto” learned English and arrived back in America just before the Pilgrims. “Squanto” negotiated trading and a sort of peace between the Europeans and the hostile natives, but he too succumbed to greed and began taking bribes.

The Native Americans while mainly hunters and gatherers grew patches of corn, beans, and squash to supplement their diets. In abundance, wild strawberries were gathered and made into cornmeal-strawberry bread. And the Pilgrims eventually learned from their adept neighbors to catch eel and use fish to fertilize their rows of corn.

At the Bi-Centennial of the Landing of the Pilgrims in 1820, a speech given by Daniel Webster told of the many hardships the Pilgrims suffered during their first two years. But he also recalled the neighborliness of natives and others who traded or sent food to the hungry Pilgrims, who sometimes got by on rations of four or five kernels of corn a day.

By the spring of 1623, after two dismal harvests, the Pilgrims had better learned how to plant their crops but in June a six week drought ensued. The Pilgrims met on a clear-skied July morning and prayed for rain for nine hours. The next day it rained. Winslow reported that the sky "distilled such softe, sweete and moderate showers…as it was hard to say whether our withered corne or drooping affections were most quickened and revived."

That fall, the Pilgrims had their best crop ever and didn’t face starvation again. Some current families adopted the tradition of placing five kernels of corn by each Thanksgiving place setting and then each diner takes turns naming five things for which they are thankful.

Milton Jones, representative of Christian Relief Fund, recently wrote after returning to the USA from poverty stricken and war torn Liberia, “If you were born in our country in history at this time, it’s like winning the cosmic lottery. No people in history have been as blessed as we are. I’m not saying that to make any of us feel guilty, but it should make us feel grateful.”

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers. I’m counting my five pieces of corn and giving thanks, and you are among my five blessings.

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