Everyone knows the general history of Thanksgiving dinner: the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans helped the pilgrims at Plymouth survive their first year in the New World, and they all celebrated together in the Autumn of 1621 with a holiday feast.
But do you know the history of the Thanksgiving dishes themselves? Why do we eat sweet potatoes and not French fries? Pumpkin pie instead of strawberry shortcake? Cranberry sauce instead of cherry marmalade?
Each delicious member of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner has arrived for a reason, and when you give thanks this year for the many blessings in your life, don’t forget to allow some gratitude that these elements of cuisine have come together to make one perfect holiday meal. The history of the Thanksgiving meal is a very American story, one that is filled with adventure, new discoveries and – of course – smart marketing.
TURKEY Native to the New World, wild turkeys were a staple of the local diet when the pilgrims arrived in 1620, and this tasty poultry was most definitely present on the table at the first Thanksgiving. That same century the birds were taken to Europe where they were confused with the guinea fowl, which had arrived on the continent by way of the country of Turkey, hence the name. Interestingly, Native Americans called this bird “peru.”
DRESSING/STUFFING Stuffing has been eaten since at least the time of the Romans, and probably before. In Europe during the Middle Ages, stuffing was known as “farce,” from the French word farcir, which means “to stuff.” The word “stuffing” first appeared in print in 1538 and held fast until the 1880s, when the Victorians decided that they didn’t so much like that word and changed it to “dressing.” Today “stuffing” is usually found inside the bird while “dressing” refers to a separate pan of the bread, vegetable and spice mixture. Recipes vary regionally; cornbread dressing is popular in the South, those with an Italian background probably add sausage to their recipe, while German-Americans prefer to mix in dried fruit, potatoes or apples.
CRANBERRY SAUCE The first English settlers to the new world called this bright berry a “craneberry,” due to its flowers that resemble the head of a crane. Native Americans already knew about the berry’s health-promoting properties and often mixed it with pemmican, a dried meat mix, to preserve it for eating during the long New England winters. Cranberry sauce gained in popularity after General Ulysses S. Grant ordered it served to his troops during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia during the Civil War, and in 1912 it became available commercially under the name “Ocean Spray.” If you listen carefully at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you can hear John Lennon repeating the phrase, “cranberry sauce.”
GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE Topped with crunchy fried onions, this side dish was invented by Campbell’s test kitchen in order to promote their soups in 1955, when smothering vegetables in a rich, creamy sauce was a popular trend.
Sweet Potatoes Columbus brought this orange root vegetable to the New World from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, and Virginia saw the first stateside cultivation in 1648 (the white potato was not introduced for another hundred years). The addition of a buttery marshmallow topping dates back to the 1920s and 30s, when marshmallows – previously an expensive, handmade treat – became widely available commercially. Please note: sweet potatoes are not yams.
GREEN JELL-O SALAD Gelatin was invented in the late 1800s by Charles Briggs Knox, who hated to see his wife work so hard boiling calves’ feet to make aspic for gelatin dishes. After his death she went on to become one of the most successful businesswomen in New York. Congealed salads were the height of food fashion in the 1930s, and were called “salads” due to the bits of fruits and nuts inside the jiggley stuff, which gave it a salad-like appearance. Inexpensive and easy to make, Jell-O salads have since become a staple of potluck dinners across the nation.
Pumpkin PIE The pilgrims probably didn’t have pumpkin pie per se at the first Thanksgiving because they didn’t have an oven to bake the crust in. This squash, which dates back 9,000 years to Mexico, had been cultivated by the Native Americans for centuries, roasted or boiled for survival. The pilgrims might have made stewed pumpkin by filling the shell with a mixture of orange flesh, milk, honey and spices and baking it in ashes, but the first pumpkin pie did not appear until 1670.
PECAN PIE The pecan tree grew in Texas and New Mexico long before any humans arrived, as is evident from the fossil record. Some Native American tribes relied on its meat as a major food resource for almost a third of the year, and they introduced this hard-shelled nut to the French settlers of New Orleans, who quickly made it into “New Orleans Pie.” A simple dessert made with nuts, corn syrup, eggs and vanilla, the pecan pie was popularized by the manufacturers of Karo corn syrup earlier this century and remains a holiday dessert staple.
image: Miz Ginger Snaps