THE oldest dish on the Thanksgiving table is succotash, a Native American combination of corn and beans that is likely to have been served at the first Thanksgiving.
Of all the holiday dishes, it speaks most directly of the harvest season in the Pilgrims’ new land.
The original recipe was just whatever beans you had on hand, fresh or dried, and dried corn was used when fresh was not in season.
We’ve made a lot of versions of succotash since that first Thanksgiving 384 years ago. In the South, cooks often add tomatoes and okra. (A 19th century cookbook even gave its pronunciation a Southern flavoring -- “succotash” was called “circuit hash.”) Midwesterners sometimes use string beans rather than shelled beans.
The most elaborate, and downright strange, recipe was one followed in the town of Plymouth, Mass., well into the 20th century. It included corned beef, salt pork, a whole chicken, one turnip and eight to 10 potatoes, and the beans were mashed to a paste, mixed with the corn and served separately from the meats and other vegetables.
Lately succotash has faded a bit in popularity. Just 15 or 20 years ago it was a staple of the frozen food aisle; more recently it has been shouldered aside by the dreaded “mixed vegetables” -- basically succotash plus carrots and string beans.
The triumph of mixed vegetables seems to have been fueled by a hope for vitamins -- it certainly can’t be because people are partial to the texture of frozen carrots and string beans.
For flavor, though, you still can’t beat a good, fresh succotash. The crucial thing is corn kernels, the fresher the better. Cook them just until tender, and reinforce their sweetness with a little sugar in the cream sauce.
Limas have been the preferred succotash bean since the 19th century, and with good reason: They’re a fine match for the corn.
Use fresh limas from farmers markets if you can find them (they should be harvested soon), but frozen or even dried beans work fine.
Full-size dried limas are a bit too starchy for this dish, though -- save them for ham hocks and beans. Baby limas are the way to go.
Pull it all together with a little cream to lend richness to the dish (the original succotash recipe, by the way, is said to have been enriched with bear fat). Then sprinkle with some crisp fried bacon for smoke and crunch.
You’ll have a traditional dish worthy of the modern pilgrimage to the Thanksgiving table.
The tool: paring knife
There are specialized gadgets for stripping corn kernels. Altogether, though, a sharp paring knife is the best way to go. Just hold the cob by the stem end, rest the tip on a plate and cut downward, slicing off three or four rows of kernels at a time.
Sharpness is the essential feature of the knife. You don’t have to go out and spend $30 -- you can just get a good, cheap German or Japanese paring knife in the $5 to $7 range. When the blade wears down, throw it away and buy a new one.