Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie—all iconic Thanksgiving dishes on the holiday table. But how did they get there? Why do they get all the attention at this yearly feast and not, say, chocolate milkshakes? Turns out, Thanksgiving was a work in progress for centuries. The table we gather around every November is actually fairly “new” as far as the Thanksgiving holiday is concerned—it wasn’t until after the Civil War in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln and Congress, at the urging of abolitionist and author Sarah Josepha Hale, established the fourth Thursday in November as America’s national Thanksgiving holiday. Here’s how the traditional foods we prepare today came into their own over time:
Turkey: It’s very likely that wild turkey was on Thanksgiving tables from the beginning, but it was probably eaten alongside pork, beef, game and other poultry like chicken and goose. Early Thanksgiving celebrations were actually “harvest feasts”, celebrations of autumn bounty, and the food served at them was varied and abundant (sound familiar?). Today, turkey has made its way to the top of the Thanksgiving food chain, so to speak, and has become an obsession with passionate cooks as they seek out heirloom and organically raised birds for their tables.
Roasting is probably the most common cooking technique for turkey, but other methods, such as smoking, grilling, braising and deep-frying, add a twist to the holiday table. One of our favorite turkey preparations involves stuffing and braising the breast portion of the bird—it’s perfect for smaller gatherings.
Stuffing: Believe it or not, stuffing has its roots in early Roman times—it was not uncommon to stuff the cavity of poultry with chunks of bread before cooking. And oyster stuffing was commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, and not just for Thanksgiving celebrations. Today, stuffing is as varied and unique as anything on the holiday table, and debates rage every year over how it’s prepared: Stuff the turkey or bake in a dish? Cornbread or plain? Moist or crispy? The choice is yours.
Cranberries: Cranberries are one of the few fruits indigenous to North America, so their place on the Thanksgiving table makes perfect sense. Canned cranberry sauce was all the rage when it was introduced in 1912, but modern farming and shipping practices have made it easier than ever to make from-scratch cranberry sauce. Its flavor is incomparable to canned—although we get a little nostalgic over the jellied cranberry sauce our grandmothers used to have on the Thanksgiving table.
Mashed Potatoes: Potatoes originated in South America, and weren’t a staple in North American diets until well into the 19th century. It’s unclear as to their historical place on the Thanksgiving table, but one thing is clear: they are absolutely required for gravy!
Green Bean Casserole: A relative newcomer to the Thanksgiving and holiday table, green bean casserole was developed in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist at Campbell Soup Company, and features their iconic Cream of Mushroom Soup. The formula is still a classic, but if you’re looking to twist it up a little bit with a splash of Madeira, mascarpone and fresh green beans, this recipe is your ticket.
Pumpkin pie: Pumpkins were no doubt part of the early harvest celebrations, but the appearance of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving tables didn’t occur until the 1800s. The pies got easier to make when, in 1929, canned pumpkin was introduced to the marketplace. But with the popularity of farmer’s markets and the wide variety of pumpkins available, it’s now not uncommon for passionate cooks to try their hand at making their own pumpkin purée for pies.
Of course, families have their own traditions outside of these here. What unique traditions does your family have for celebrate Thanksgiving?