I have a friend whose favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. She hosts a feast for family and friends, and cooks the meat; guests provide everything else. Her response to the classic “What can I bring?” is “Whatever says Thanksgiving to you.” One of these years, I hope to get there. When I do, I’ll make succotash.
At its simplest, succotash stars corn and lima beans, with butter, salt and pepper in supporting roles. There are fancier versions, too, but whatever the recipe, it appears that succotash joins fruitcake in the category “holiday-related foods that people either like or despise.” Are the limas the villain?
I have always eaten succotash, but I’ve never been crazy about limas. It was probably the name that first appealed. We eat first with our eyes, it’s often said. We also feel the texture of food first as a word in our mouths.
Succotash. It’s a fun word to say, the hard quick K sound at the turn in the first two syllables, where the tongue does most of the work; the long aashhhh at the end of the third, where the jaw drops and returns a little, the mouth opens wide and then narrows in a forward motion, as if it’s closing around a forkful of something good.
I was probably also intrigued by its American Indian origins, and fancifully imagined Indians bringing succotash to the first Thanksgiving, in wooden serving bowls they carved from the leftovers of their hollowed-log canoes. In fact, succotash probably wasn’t on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. But Algonquin Indians did give us the word. According to etymology sources, it made its way into English around 1750 from the Narragansett word msickquatash, meaning “boiled whole kernels of corn.”
In The Victory Garden Cookbook, however, Marian Morash says, “The original succotash, developed by early colonists, was a hearty chicken and corned beef stew containing potatoes, turnips, and whatever dried or fresh corn and beans were available.” Her recipe calls for those five essential ingredients, plus bacon or salt pork.
If I can’t be sure about the dish’s history, I can hold onto certainty about what limas have going for them beyond taste. They’re good sources of fiber, protein, and assorted vitamins and minerals; they help in lowering cholesterol.
In an informal, statistically insignificant “What do you think of succotash?” poll I conducted on social media, many respondents quoted Daffy Duck’s exclamation “Sufferin’ succotash” in documenting their own suffering, being forced to eat succotash as children. But might it be the succotash that suffers, sitting there overlooked on the table, like the kid who dreads getting chosen last for the dodgeball team — every bit as athletic as some of the others, but nowhere near as popular.
Succotash makes a cameo appearance in the poem “The Veggie Life,” in which Michael Steffen considers the etymology of the word “vegetable,” the genealogy of potatoes, and the suffering of another green vegetable.
The Veggie Life
Cabbages, beans and bell peppers vie
for the glossy centerfold of Nature’s Hand
where this month the vulgar Hubbard squash
reclines with succotash of questionable origin.
I’ve grown to prize passivity; I’ve learned the word
“vegetable” comes from Medieval Latin—
vegetabilis, and vegetare which means “to animate, to grow,”
though I can think of half a dozen ways to squander
an afternoon as Destry Rides Again, Dietrich and Stewart…
and my doctor friend Lenny who calls to tell me
that broccoli has a nervous system, that it suffers
when you pick it. If form follows function,
it stands to reason that pain is the fate of all “brainy” things—
cauliflower, coral and raspberry clumps, the florets that sizzle
in my spiced tahini. I’ve heard potatoes
described as “thuggy and plotless,” but never “aristocratic”
as it says on page seven’s “The Stately Spud,”
where tubers possess an enviable pedigree,
popular back to 4000 b.c. when Incas made urns
in the shape of russets—
long reds, round reds and Yukon Golds,
best for sautéing, excellent in frittatas.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for ambition,
but some days I’d rather steep in my own kettle.
Give me chamomile, cowboys, cornelian cherries.
Let me sink, once again, into purposeless sleep.
— Michael Steffen
How to Make Succotash
1 bag frozen (not canned) sweet corn plus the remains of that partial bag in the back of the freezer
1 bag frozen (not canned) baby (not Fordhook) lima beans
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
Put corn, limas and butter in a saucepan with not quite enough water to cover everything.
Heat to boiling, then lower heat, add a little salt and pepper, and simmer for a while, stirring periodically.
Serve, if possible, in a bowl handed down through the family.
half an onion
an equal proportion of roasted red pepper
a Roma tomato or another small tomato, or, if you’re patient with chopping, an equivalent volume of cherry or grape tomatoes
Chop the onion, pepper and tomato. Saute in olive oil. Add succotash. Stir until sizzling hot.
Read more Eating and Drinking Poems
Read more Thanksgiving Poems
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish