Enlightened Cook
17th century Thanksgiving traditions renewed by progressive Philadelphia restaurant

By Chris Rodell
Cooking Light
November 2007

When Judy Wicks talks about hosting a traditional Thanksgiving at the White Dog Cafe, her popular Philadelphia restaurant, she’s not thinking about the kind celebrated in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “Freedom from Want.” No, her idea of tradition pre-dates Rockwell, it pre-dates Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 “Thanksgiving” declaration, and pre-dates America herself.

Heck, her idea of a traditional Thanksgiving pre-dates Thanksgiving turkey.

When this visionary activist thinks about the future, she darts back to 1621. That’s when Native Americans and European settlers shared their mutual gratitude for a native bounty that, nearly 400 years later, is still capable of tickling taste buds through a thoroughly modern menu.

“The majority of the food staples we eat today were first successfully cultivated by native peoples,” says Wicks, a nomadic homebody who’s lived in the same apartment above the White Dog through 35 years of globe trotting. “And, remember, they used only the very freshest ingredients. They were organic before anyone knew what organic was.”

Fresh and local are the timeless shopping criteria for executive chef Andrew Brown as he traipses through bustling Philadelphia’s vibrant Reading Terminal Market. He thumbs through moon-colored bouquets of oyster mushrooms the way veteran detectives investigate fresh crime scenes.

“I’m looking for the same things the best native chefs were looking for at that first Thanksgiving,” he says. “We all want the freshest ingredients to liven up every bite. We’re committed to using and promoting our local farms for reasons of taste and global responsibility.”

This marks the 15th year Wicks has hosted a Native American Thanksgiving dinner featuring a painstakingly researched menu authentic to early Americans -- both those of the original vintage and those who invited themselves to what they myopically called the “New World.” Native Americans from the Lenape Nation will address diners interested in learning about what Thanksgiving was like when survival, not professional football, was the bonding fall pastime.

And how did Brown manage to excavate a menu from nearly four centuries ago? “It wasn’t as hard as it sounds,” he says. “I just went on-line and Googled “first Thanksgiving.”

Try it yourself and you’ll learn, as Brown did, that turkeys weren’t the only thing absent from the first Thanksgiving Day tables. So were forks, pepper and the refined sorts of table manners practiced today. People ate mostly with their fingers and morsels of hotter foods were snagged with large cloth napkins. Extensive consultations with books and food historians followed.

Authenticity not withstanding, diners on December 2 won’t need to consider as finger foods tasty dishes like Flame Roasted Honey and Chili Glazed Duck Breast with Sundried Cherry-Sage Sauce. For $45, they get the full complement of silverware and the opportunity to indulge in Brown’s toothsome homage to those who took the first fledgling steps in our nation’s collective history.

This year’s options include heady bowls of Roasted Pumpkin and Winter Squash Soup topped with Walnut Sage Pesto, Roasted Delicata Squash filled with Hominy, Pinot Beans and Smoked Seitain. Tender filets of Braised Venison and Local Sweet Potato Stew served with carrots onions, rutabagas and parsley dumplings are popular. Like the rest of the menu, conveying originality with this popular deer dish requires some stovetop sleight of hand.

“The trick is to make such a rustic meal like the Braised Venison look genuinely contemporary,” he says. “What I ended up doing was breaking down venison legs and using them to make stock. This gives it a real rich flavor. We also make the parsley dumpling extremely light and delicate. It was almost like creating a delicious French gnocchi. A French gnocchi is more or less pate-a-choux that is cooked in boiling water. This was the spin I was looking for and our guests really respond to it.”

While serving Wild Line Caught Halibut flown in fresh from Alaska might seem at odds with the restaurant’s mission of buying local, it is a concession to the realities of remaining viable in competitive market. And diners learn that Halibut was once plentiful in the Atlantic and was likely on the table at the first Thanksgiving. When purchased responsibly, from suppliers that practice fair trade and sustainable attrition, halibut can once again be viable in easter waters, he says.

“For me, my favorite item to make and eat is the Oyster Corn Bread Stuffing for the Wild Line Caught Halibut,” Brown says. “Making it really gives me a spiritual connection to the Native Americans that participated in the first Thanksgiving. Oysters were a true staple back then and to use it as stuffing -- one of today’s Thanksgiving staples -- to me really links the past with the present. And I love any dish infused with nice, succulent oysters.”

A dessert of Autumn Orchard Fruits and Cranberry Crisp topped with Cinnamon Ice Cream has a timeless taste that’ll be delighting diners four centuries from today.

Spend any time within the White Dog’s paneled walls, beneath the shelves of tiny ceramic white dogs, and you’ll become convinced the solution to mounting national food scares lie right beneath our feet, says the energetic Wicks, perhaps the fastest talker in the Slow Food movement. She says we need to rely on our neighbors and ourselves for food, clothing, shelter and energy, something she learned at 22 when she spent 1969 living with native Eskimos in Alaska.

“These people had no concept of envy,” she says. “They shared everything. If you had more than you needed, you’d give it away to someone with less. That’s where I get my inspiration.”

All this sounds like home to Jim Beer, spokesman of the native Lenape Nation (which receives a portion of the proceeds from the dinner), and a past speaker at the White Dog Thanksgiving. “Judy has a profound respect for our native traditions and for the contemporary issues that touch us all. And at the center of it all, are tables of truly delicious food.”

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