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A History Of The Thanksgiving Feast

Sarah Allen |
November 17, 2013 | 7:25 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

We know the story of the first Thanksgiving, but how has the food changed since then? (Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)
We know the story of the first Thanksgiving, but how has the food changed since then? (Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)
A lot has changed about the Thanksgiving feast since the Pilgrims and Native Americans first sat down together in 1621.

According to Smithsonian magazine, historians know for certain only that the Pilgrims feasted on wildfowl, corn, and venison. Today, Americans traditionally dine on turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie. How did the components of the Thanksgiving feast develop from the time of the Pilgrims until today?


Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Pilgrim Plantation, doubts that turkey was the main feature of the first Thanksgiving meal. The Pilgrims may not have eaten turkey at all. In fact, it is unclear when and how turkey first claimed its place as the Thanksgiving bird. However, by the late 1700s, founding Father Alexander Hamilton declared, "No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." By 1916, writers had begun referring to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day. By the time Thanksgiving become a federal holiday in 1941, turkey had solidified its place as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving celebrations across the country. 


Since the Pilgrims lacked access to flour or ovens, historians know that bread-based stuffing was not featured at the first Thanksgiving meal. The history of stuffing actually extends back far before the Pilgrims arrived in America. Stuffing dates back to the Roman empire, and recipes for stuffing appear in the Roman cookbook De re Coquinaria. While stuffing is often associate specifically with turkey, the practice of stuffing large birds, not just turkeys, was common in the Pilgrims' era. Today, Americans rarely cook large birds except on Thanksgiving, so stuffing is now rarely prepared if turkey is not involved. Thanks to Ruth Miriam Siems, a Kraft Foods Inc. product developer, who created boxed stuffing, Americans can enjoy stuffing year-round with minimal effort required. The convenience product quickly became popular after its creation in 1971.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are also native to North America, and, like pumpkins, were eaten by the Native Americans far before the first Thanksgiving. Once the settlers began consuming cranberries in the mid-1600s, cranberries became a crucial part of the New England harvest. However, it was not until 50 years after Thanksgiving that referencs to traditional cranberry sauce appeared in the written historical record. Cranberries sealed their role as a part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal. In 1912, a company now known as Ocean Spray began canning and selling cranberry sauce to Americans.


At the time of the first Thanksgiving, neither white potatoes nor sweet potatoes had arrived in North America. White potatoes are native to South America, while sweet potatoes are native to the Carribean. Once sweet potatoes were brought to the United States from Europe, they quickly became popular in the south, where humid growing conditions suited the orange tuber. Southerners even used sweet potatoes as a substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. The earliest recipe for candied sweet potatoes did not appear until 1889. Sweet potatoe casseroles were first introduced to marshmallows in 1917 by Angelus Marshmallows in a book intended to popularize marshmallows as an everyday cooking ingredient. While marshmallows do not often feature in main dishes, the company succeeded in immortalizing the pairing of sweet potato and marshmallow as a Thanksgiving favorite.

Pumpkin Pie

Like turkeys, pumpkins are native to the North America continent. However, pumpkin probably was not baked into a pie at the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Pilgrims did not even have access to ovens. While pumpkin and squash are part of the traditional New England harvest, the Pilgrims likely only ate boiled pumpkin, not the now-traditional pumpkin pie. Approximately fifty years after the first Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie gained popularity in New England. Recipes for pumpkin pie then appeared in a French cookbook in 1951 and in English cookbooks beginning in 1670. However, the first American cookbook that included a recipe for pumpkin pie was not published until 1796. Pumpkin pie today is a popular way to conclude a delicious Thanksgiving feast with a sweet dessert.

Reach Staff Reporter Sarah Allen here.



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