The History of Thanksgiving Food
November is here, and you know what that means: Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away. While everybody has different traditions for the holiday, there are some common themes like family and food. But where exactly do these traditional foods come from? Let’s take a look and find out.
For most people, turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal…and perhaps the most frustrating to cook right…or to cut and serve once it’s cooked. In any case, turkey was certainly part of the legendary first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and their Indian neighbors in 1621—and along with venison, cod, and bass, it was a staple in their diet all the time. There’s actually a good chance the Pilgrims had already tasted this new world bird in Europe, since the Spanish had brought it to the old world. While we often use drippings from the turkey to make gravy, it's likely that the Pilgrims used venison brought by their Native American friends.
Accounts from 1672 have said about cranberries that “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.” Maple syrup and honey were a few of the natural sweeteners that Native Americans used to offset the natural tartness of the berry. Over the next century, the popularity of cranberry sauce as a meat condiment took off, surpassing other popular options like pickled mangoes, which were imported from India. The name cranberry itself comes from German settlers, who called it Kranberee, as opposed to the English term moss-berry.
This Thanksgiving staple is a relatively recent entry. Sweet potatoes are actually indigenous to South America, and had been introduced to North America by the Spanish as early as 1571. But they did not take off in popularity until much later, and were mainly enjoyed in the South. The Pilgrims more likely ate groundnuts and Indian turnips. As for marshmallows, they were invented by French chefs who combined the marshmallow root, beaten egg whites, and sugar. Once a way of mass producing marshmallows with gelatin instead of the plant root was discovered, the popularity of this treat took off, and its pairing with sweet potatoes.
Pies were an old world tradition, where crusts would typically be stuffed with meat. And pumpkins would have been a gourd familiar to them as well, introduced to Europe by the Spanish. But with no wheat flour, no butter, and no oven, it’s unlikely that pumpkin pie was served at the first Thanksgiving. Pumpkins and other squash were enjoyed however, perhaps hollowed out and filled with milk, honey, and spices and then roasted to create a custard. In the 19th century, pumpkin was happily married to pie crust and by the end of that century, was referred to as an inevitably staple dish for the holiday.
The first thanksgiving probably saw its meaty centerpiece stuffed with herbs, onions, and nuts. And for years afterwards, Americans were stuffing turkey with oysters, which were once the most plentiful and consumed seafood in the colonies. But bread stuffing goes all the way back to ancient Rome, to stuff pig, chicken, rabbit, and even dormouse (you read that right). If you want to know how that stuffing was prepared, you can read the ancient cookbook De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking). Cookbooks from the 19th century show that thanksgiving turkey or ham were being stuffed, often with spiced bread cubes in the North, and meaty cornbread in the South, where it was often called bread dressing.
What are your plans for Thanksgiving?
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