As I continue down the culinary path towards all things New Mexico, I find it a timely activity as we quickly approach Thanksgiving. Recently I’ve been focusing more on dishes and commonly used ingredients from the indigenous peoples of this area, of whom date back to the 12th century- WAY before any contact with European culture.
I don’t know about you but when I think about Thanksgiving dinner I imagine a table heaving with rich foods all laced with butter or cream or both (yes to both!). And yet, pre-contact Pueblo cuisine involved no dairy. No butter or cream or cheese or the like. Isn’t it interesting (for lack of a better word) how all history, even that around food, always gets rewritten from the dominating culture’s perspective?
I thought it was well worth reading a few books and recipes on Pueblo cooking, to get an idea of what the food was actually supposed to taste like, before it was tinkered with. Of course, what I have made will never be an exact replication- so much of Pueblo culture and history is shared orally for both strength and safeguarding; passed down from generation to generation with personal wisdom and insight attached to each family, each tribe, each nation. Still, I found it interesting to attempt it, if nothing else as a way to acknowledge where these types food really came from; a tiny sliver of actual history, rather than the more palatable stories we are taught in schools.
For anyone else interested in this type of research I highly recommend The Pueblo Food Experience, recommended to me by a friend at the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center in Albuquerque. I decided to give the Squash Soup a try, along with the book’s suggested cooking method that proved to be THE EASIEST way ever to prepare a butternut squash. Put away the peelers and cleavers and simply cut the butternut in half or quarters (ok, you’ll need a cleaver for that part), then scoop out the seeds and roast in a deep-sided roasting tin filled approx 1 inch (3cm) full of slightly salted water- I added half of a cinnamon stick to mine as well. After you roast the squash all you have to do is scoop out the soft flesh and BOOM! Done! Just remember to save the roasting water for your broth as it contains so much beautiful butternuty flavour, it really adds to your final product. I also added a few roasted sweet potatoes to my own soup to help thicken it slightly.
Unfortunately despite my best efforts to find turkey bones to make turkey stock as the recipe and the history suggests (Pueblo Indians did not raise chickens pre-Spanish contact), every butcher in town looked at me sideways before checking their calendars to make sure it wasn’t approaching Christmas. Turkeys are so hard to come by outside of the month of December here in the UK. If you’re in the US (or a few other year-round-turkey-loving-places) you might have an easier time with the turkey bones quest.
Having grown up in a Jewish household with lots of Jewish friends, Thanksgiving rather than Christmas, has always been a time of year where we come back home to visit, eat and connect. It holds that same sentimental piece in my own history that many others reserve for Christmas. In truth, as an adult it’s hard to rectify that same feeling of sentimentality I have for the holiday with the reality of its history. How do we move the conversation forward, taking what is one of the only national holidays in the US that revolves around the table and personal connection without presents or religion, whilst also facing up to how it came into existence? It’s a question I honestly don’t know quite how to answer, but will likely spend each November attempting to do so- which is maybe the point.
Nonetheless, I am grateful for the opportunity share my ideas about family, culture and history through food; both at the table and on the page. Wishing you all a very happy Thanksgiving. Whatever your traditions around the holiday may be, I think this soup would be a welcome addition to your table.
Adapted slightly from The Pueblo Food Experience
1 large butternut squash
2 sweet potatoes or yams
750ml (3 cups) turkey or chicken stock
sea salt to taste
1/2 whole cinnamon stick
water for cooking
Preheat your oven to 200C/400F.
Prepare your butternut squash by splitting it in half, down the center line, and then again in quarters if desired. Scrape out the seeds. Place the squash flesh down into a large oven proof roasting pan, then fill the pan with water, approx 1 inch (3cm) high up the sides, partially covering the squash. Add in half of a cinnamon stick and a good few pinches of salt, before sliding into the middle shelf of your pre-heated oven and roasting for up to one hour or until soft and tender. Into the same oven, add your sweet potatoes or yams, wrapped in tin foil. Around the 40 minute mark, check on your potatoes to make sure they are done but not burnt, pull them out, and continue letting the squash finish cooking.
Once the squash has been cooked well, remove from oven and let it cool until it’s at a touchable temperature- ten minutes or so- reserving the now flavoured cooking water. Scoop out the flesh of both the squash and the potatoes, adding them into a blender followed by the turkey or chicken stock and the reserved roasting water. Blend until smooth then pour into a stock pot and place on a medium low heat, simmering the soup for a further hour or until you’ve reached your desired thickness. Taste and adjust for seasoning and serve alongside a few good hunks of cornbread.