On Thanksgiving, more than any other day of the year, Americans sit down and eat the same meal as their neighbors and countrymen. It’s tradition, after all! But we know our history: most of the Thanksgiving dishes we enjoy today weren’t at the original Pilgrims’ feast in 1621, or at least not in the way we enjoy them. How did we come up with the modern menu on so many tables?
Sweet potatoes are native to the Americas and their consumption goes back about 5,000 years, so it is no wonder they are associated with the American holiday, even though the Pilgrims didn’t have them in Massachusetts. But when did we start adding sugar to make them even sweeter than they are? The earliest recipe found is from 1889, in which sweet potatoes are made into candy.
Cranberries were probably a part of the original Thanksgiving feast. The Native Americans used them for food, medicine, and even dye. Most importantly, cranberries were used as a preservative because they contain benzoic acid, so they added the fruit to meats and grains to extend their shelf life. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberry sauce to be served to his troops in 1864, probably to prevent scurvy during the winter. It was first put into cans in 1912 by a company that eventually came to be known as Ocean Spray, a term that originally was used only for their canned cranberry sauce. .
Although not confined to Thanksgiving, “brown and serve rolls” are sold by the ton by various manufacturers for the holiday. They originated in 1949 when baker Joe Gregor of Avon Park, Florida tried to please his customers who wanted their rolls warm for dinner. He worked on the problem for months until he accidentally produced a batch of half-baked rolls. He left the “ruined” rolls in the oven while he responded to a fire alarm (Gregor was a volunteer fireman) and when he returned, he reheated the rolls and realized what he had produced. Gregor sold half-baked rolls to his customers to take home and finish baking before dinner. General Mills bought the process for $25,000, allowing Gregor to retire from baking. Recipes are available so that you can make your own rolls ahead of time and brown them just before dinner.
It is not known when the first actual apple cider was produced, but the invading Romans discovered it in use in the village of Kent when they invaded England in 55BCE. Cider spread through Europe during the Middle Ages. English settlers brought apple seeds to America, where the trees thrived. Other drinks, especially beer, became more popular, but cider is traditionally consumed in the fall to celebrate the apple harvest. That is how cider, especially spiced cider, came to be associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The concept of deviled eggs goes back to at least Ancient Rome, when boiled eggs were topped with spicy sauces. Removing the yolks from boiled eggs, adding spices, and then returning them was common in medieval times. The word “deviled” was first used in print to describe a highly spiced recipe in 1786, and came to be used for any food that was “hot” like the devil’s domain.
There are only a couple of accounts of the Pilgrim’s feast written by participants, and at least one never even mentioned turkeys. The most famous remembrance was written twenty years after the fact by governor William Bradford and was confiscated by the British during the Revolutionary War. It was not recovered until 1854. Meanwhile, turkeys were roasted during the winter months by any Americans who had access to the birds. When the Bradford document became available, roast turkey became associated with the Thanksgiving meal. After all, the birds are much easier to raise on farms than the deer, swans, partridges, and seal meat that were also on the Pilgrims’ menu.
Stuffing animals for roasting goes back to ancient times, with old recipes surviving from the Roman Empire. After removing the organs, the big hole left behind is an opportunity to add seasoning from the inside, and filling the cavity helps to even the cooking over a fire. In modern times, the Thanksgiving turkey is the only large animal that most people ever roast whole in their homes, so the custom of stuffing is linked to Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is often served without ever actually being inside the turkey. Modern instant stuffing is even served with no turkey at all! Stovetop Stuffing was invented in 1971 by Ruth Siems for General Foods (now Kraft Foods). The convenience of instant stuffing was an immediate hit when it was launched in 1972. The company sells around 60 million boxes every Thanksgiving.
The green bean casserole that many people serve for Thanksgiving originated in 1955 with a recipe by Dorcas Reilly of the Campbell’s Soup Company, in collaboration with Olney and Carpenter, who were trying to promote their french fried onion business. The recipe caught on, and ensured the future of canned fried onions and the trend of using cream soup instead of homemade white sauce. Of course, you can make it from scratch without the processed name-brand ingredients.
Mincemeat, a combination of meat, fruit, and spices not only tasted good to those who developed it, but preserved the meat for later consumption. Believe it or not, early mincemeat pies were baked in a coffin shape! One account has mincemeat brought back from the Crusades in the 11th century. Spiced meat was made into a pie for Christmas. The meat was combined with three spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) to represent the three gifts of the wise men. The oblong coffin shape was meant to represent the cradle of the Christ child, and a representative doll was placed on top when the small pies were presented. Another account has the original pies shaped like coffins to represent Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead who was celebrated on the winter solstice. Christians co-opted this tradition along with the other solstice celebrations for Christmas. Over the years, the amount of meat was diminished as we developed other methods of preservation, and now most mincemeat recipes contain only a bit of suet along with apples, raisins, and spices. However, you can still make it the traditional way with this 1796 recipe.
The Pilgrims may have eaten cooked pumpkin, but they didn’t have it in a pie. The first recorded pumpkin pie recipe was published in France in 1653, where the fruit was called pompion. It spread to England and then to the New World, where the first American pie recipe (now called pumpkin) was published in 1796.
1. Candied Sweet Potatoes
“The candied sweet potato is a Philadelphia confectionery. It is nothing but sweet potatoes carefully boiled and quartered, then candied in boiling syrup, but it is said to be dainty and tender and of a delicious flavor”.By 1895, recipes for sweetened sweet potatoes as a dinner side dish were showing up. Some call these recipes candied yams, although actual yams are a different plant altogether. “Yams” is an American nickname for the softer varieties of sweet potato.
2. Cranberry Sauce
3. Brown and Serve Rolls
4. Apple Cider
5. Deviled Eggs