Strawberry Thanksgiving Heralds Sweet Summer Treats
By photojournalist: Christina Rose Indian Country Today
It was a small, but sweet gathering for Strawberry Thanksgiving at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. Guests sipped strawberry iced tea, ate strawberry shortcake, and sampled the berries piled high in a deep woven basket.
Between now and early July, fresh strawberries will be making their appearance on tables across the country. Whether growing wild in the fields, in the garden, or bought from local farm stands and grocery stores, nothing says summer like the strawberry.
The Narragansett’s Strawberry Thanksgiving is one of 13 thanksgivings held throughout the year. “Traditionally, this is just part of the cycle,” said Dawn Dove, one of the many women of the Dove family in attendance that day.
The menu at the June 13th event celebrated the bright red berry with strawberry muffins, shortcake, and a strawberry chicken salad, but Paulla Dove Jennings, Narragansett storyteller, said there are many other ways to enjoy the robust little fruit: “You can make pemmican, teas, you can throw them in your johnnycakes and cornbread. Whatever pleases you!”
Throwing them in johnnycakes is a Narragansett specialty. Sitting on benches beneath a tall shade tree, several generations of women, including 97-year-old Eleanor Spears Dove, laughed and reminisced about the Dovecrest Restaurant, which she and her husband, opened in 1963 and closed in 1991.
Eleanor was well known locally and throughout the states for her excellent Native fare. Guests from all of the lower 48 states, and from all over the world, signed their guestbook. According to a 1981 New York Timesarticle, Dovecrest was one of the few places wild game, including raccoon pie, was served. But it was the johnnycakes that won the prize. “By all reliable accounts, Eleanor Dove makes the best johnnycakes in New England—which is to say, the world. Several years back a Providence newspaper bestowed the cachet, followed by a book called ‘America’s Best,’ which listed superlatives in many fields,” the article’s author stated.
Though the restaurant is gone, many of the recipes are still prepared today. Paulla said the traditional strawberry cornbread is still popular. “Just put the strawberries in the mix,” she recommended.
Narragansetts and strawberries go back a long time; long before colonist Roger Williams came in the 1630s and lived among the Narragansetts. “He had never tasted a sweeter fruit,” Paulla said. “They had berries in Europe, but they weren’t as sweet as ours. And they didn’t look like today’s berries. They were smaller, but so sweet and so good.”
During the event, friends, family and guests found a multitude of ways to celebrate the berry, including storytelling. Paulla told listeners, “Creator gave us the gift of berries after the winter, when he saw people sharing food and helping each other with lodging, sharing wood, sharing all the things that would get them to spring. He decided to give them a gift for the season, and there are raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, blackberries—each in their season.”
Storytelling comes naturally to Paulla, so she told the creation story of the strawberry: “Of course, in every crowd there is someone who says, ‘Me first! Me first! Me first!’ And that was strawberry. ‘I have a cute hat on my head,’ the strawberry said, and creator said, ‘You have to hold your head up and let the sun shine on you, and let the rain come down on you, and you will grow strong,” and that’s how strawberry became the first berry of the season.
Lauren Spears, Tomaquag Museum executive director, told another abbreviated version of a story written by her Aunt Paulla. “A brother and sister went out for a playful adventure, but were warned by their grandmother not to cross the river. They were gathering and playing, smelling flowers, when they came to the river. The sister wanted to cross the river, but her brother chose to remain where he had been told to stay.
The girl skipped across the stones to the other side and saw new creatures, frogs and toads, and all kinds of things. But every time she turned to exclaim her excitement, she realized she was alone. Her brother had gone off, and she became sad and started to cry. Everywhere her tears fell, strawberries grew in their place, and she picked them to share with her brother and grandmother. In this way, strawberries have become a tradition, known as heart berries, wetahminneash, and have become a traditional Narragansett gift of friendship and forgiveness.”
Local lore aside, the strawberry’s reputation goes beyond the widely celebrated fruit. As a superfood, the strawberry is loaded with nutrients including antioxidants, vitamin C, folic acid and potassium, and is a veritable pathway to health. According to Best Health Magazine, eating 16 strawberries daily provides a day’s worth of vitamin C. Combined with a healthy diet, strawberries can help prevent cataracts and supports overall eye health. The rich combination of vitamins and minerals can also help ward off cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even arthritis; and folic acid is necessary in prenatal health to prevent birth defects.
“We give thanks for the strawberry,” Dawn Dove said in a welcoming address to the guests. “We gather and we see the cycles of life. We see that each of us have been given a duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. Everything we need to live a good life is here. For all that love still around us, we send our words of thanks to Creator, with thankful hearts.”