By Himanee Gupta-Carlson
Food blogger and photographer Pattie Garrett and I were trading ideas for cooking various vegetables last month when the traditional Thanksgiving cornucopia came up. Pattie recalled that her mother had always had a “horn of plenty” on her Thanksgiving meal tables but that she herself hadn’t carried on the tradition. Pattie’s stories raised memories for me of seeing cornucopia displays in department stores as a child but never quite understanding what exactly they were.
I decided to do some research. Here’s what I found:
The word “cornucopia” literally translates from its Latin derivations into horn (cornu) of plenty (copia). The horn is a container of goodness overflowing. The cornucopia of today’s Thanksgiving tables usually are not quite horns but rather wicker baskets. They tend to be decorative but filled with colorful foods and such things as feathery strands of wheat or fuzzy cattails. The foods range from apples and grapes to squashes, ears of corn, and other somewhat durable vegetables. The main goal in creating a cornucopia is to represent it as abundance overflowing.
Where did this image come from? How did it come to be associated with Thanksgiving? Interestingly enough, the first question is easier to answer than the second.
According to Greek tales, the cornucopia is an actual animal horn. In one story, the god Zeus is hidden from his father Cronos who wants to kill him. As a baby, Zeus receives care from a goat named Amalthea. One day while romping Zeus accidentally breaks one of Amalthea’s horns. He rectifies this act by using his godly powers to keep the horn filled with whatever foods, drinks, or other comforts Amalthea might need. In a sense, he is filling the horn with abundance to ensure that his caregiver’s needs are met.
In a different Greek tale, Zeus’s son Hercules is vying for the affections of Deianira, who is the daughter of King Aeneus. His principal rival for Deianira’s heart is the god of rivers, Achelous. As Achelous and Hercules do battle with each other, Achelous changes forms numerous times over. At one point he becomes a bull, and Hercules manages to break off one of the bullhorns. This is enough to send Achelous back to the rivers, in defeat. Hercules and Deianira celebrate the victory by filling the horn with flowers and fruits, once again symbolizing plenty.
These are just stories, of course. But over the centuries the cornucopia turns up across cultures and across artistic genres, in paintings, on pottery, occasionally in poems. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive moment when the cornucopia began to serve as a symbol for the modern-day Thanksgiving. Yet, subtly, we all know that this is what it is.
According to the educational resources website BrightHub Education, the cornucopia is said to represent blessings and a sense of abundance, particularly of food. They usually exist in the form of wicker baskets shaped like a horn and are filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and breads. BrightHub author Sarah Malberg also noted that one could obtain a cornucopia made of such materials as clay, wood, or stainless steel.
So how does one assemble a cornucopia? Are there dos and don’ts for getting it right? Again, the answer appears less than definitive. The main goal is to fill them with foods so that they overflow, creating the idea that there’s plenty of food for everyone, that nobody should go hungry, especially on Thanksgiving.
What would you put in your cornucopia? What signifies wealth in the way of food to do? How might a farmers market horn of plenty be put together? Ponder these questions as you prepare for your Thanksgivings, and create your own horns of plenty. The following recipes, based on seasonal vegetables at the farmers’ market, may provide further food for thought on that idea.