The History of Thanksgiving Foods

While the holiday itself dates back to the pilgrims, it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” in 1863 that we celebrated collectively.

When you ask people what they’re having for Thanksgiving, the turkey is inevitably the star of the show, followed by stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

But why do eat those things for the holiday? For the most part, the meal is reflective of the different cultures that shape our nation. Here’s a look at the history of eight holiday favorites, courtesy of The Washington Post.

The History of Your Holiday Favorites

  • Apple Cider - Cider was once the national beverage. Later, unfermented, sweet cider would become more common on American tables, but before the mid-1800s, the hard stuff was the drink of choice for Americans — New Englanders most of all. And they have the French to thank for introducing it to their ancestors. Medieval Normans had brought cider with them across the English Channel. The people they conquered in 1066 would grow to love it and eventually took it across the Atlantic on their own quest for new lands.
  • Turkey - William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, tells us in his account of the colony’s early years that settlers’ diets that fall included wild turkey along with venison, cod, bass, waterfowl and corn. The turkeys might have been quite welcome to the newcomers in their harsh and unfamiliar new surroundings. Thanks to their Spanish imperial rivals, the English had been enjoying the meaty bird for decades. Spaniards had encountered turkeys in their early forays in the New World and had brought the fowl back home.
  • Cranberry Sauce - Although certain varieties of cranberry grow in parts of Europe, the turkey’s most popular dinner companion tells a story of New World cultural exchange. The fruit’s use draws on native food culture. Indigenous peoples had long raised and eaten the berries. A 1672 account of the colonies reported that “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.” Cranberry sauce has been paired with turkey, in particular, since at least the 18th century. Amelia Simmons, author of “American Cookery,” published in 1796, suggested serving roast turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry-sauce.”
  • Oyster Stuffing - Oysters were once plentiful and for centuries were the most commonly eaten shellfish in America. At home, cooks filled turkeys and other birds with oysters to stretch the pricier fowl. They also made loaves, sauces, pies, soups and stews with the inexpensive protein.
  • Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows - The happy marriage of sweet potatoes with marshmallows owes itself to two developments of the 1800s. In the late part of the century, in the decades when the national Thanksgiving holiday took hold, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes — long eaten in the South — and incorporated them into the special meal. Meanwhile, marshmallows were invented by the French, who beat the roots of the marshmallow plant with egg whites and sugar to make a chewy treat. In 1917, the Angelus Marshmallows company distributed a recipe booklet that taught Americans how they might use marshmallows.
  • Tamales - A Mesoamerican dish that dates back millenniums, tamales in their simplest form are masa (maize dough) wrapped in either corn husks or banana or plantain leaves, steamed and then unwrapped to be eaten. The masa can also be filled with beans, meat, vegetables or cheese. Thanks to recent Latin American immigration to the United States, tamales are increasingly showing up on Thanksgiving tables as well. With a name derived from the Nahuatl word “tamalli,” this hearty newcomer to our national meal highlights the fact that Latin American immigrants often have Indian ancestry.
  • Rice - Whether it’s served with beans, in risotto or pilaf, as a stuffing or simply steamed, rice has a leading place at our national meal. It also has always had a leading place as an American export crop. In the British American colonies, rice farming began in the 1600s and relied on enslaved Africans who supplied not only the brutally hard labor but also the knowledge of rice cultivation that made the crop succeed. As millions of us sit down to meals that feature rice on Thanksgiving, so will millions around the world enjoy the grain, thanks to American farmers.
  • Pumpkin Pie - The quintessential pie marries an indigenous American food already familiar to English colonists with an economical English culinary tradition of filling crust with meat, vegetable or fruit. Colonists cultivated pumpkin from their earliest years in the New World, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes from the 1600s. The dessert did not often show up on Thanksgiving tables until the early 1800s, but by later in the century, pumpkin pies were so closely associated with the holiday that in 1869, the (Hartford) Connecticut Courant referred to the pie, along with turkey, as the “inevitable” Thanksgiving dishes.

Photo: Getty Images

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