“Craneberry”

bog

Marshmallow

marsh

Mountains of

sweet potato

goodness

Turkeysaurus

Food of at least

one of the gods

Squash court

Mountains of

sweet potato goodness

marshmallow

marsh

“Craneberry” bog

Turkeysaurus

Squash court

Food of at least

one of the gods

Mountains of

sweet potato goodness

marshmallow

marsh

“Craneberry” bog

Turkeysaurus

Squash court

Food of at least

one of the gods

We know that birds and dinosaurs are related. What’s science-nerd code for “Thanksgiving”?

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Got a paleontologist in the family? Then you may celebrate Dinosaur Dissection Day by carving and eating an overstuffed modern dinosaur. Scientists don’t know which dino is the closest relative to birds, said Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History. But for a reptilian approximation of a turkey, he nominated a foot-tall Late Jurassic feathered theropod named Anchiornis, which literally means “near-bird.” Like a domestic turkey, it had meaty drumsticks, its clavicles were fused into a wishbone, and it probably couldn’t fly. Scientists have theorized that Anchiornis climbed trees and used its wings only to glide. (Speaking of turkeys hitting the ground, here’s a Thanksgiving classic.)

Sweet potatoes were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries because people thought they ...

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The tasty orange tubers were among the many kinds of potatoes that grew wild in the New World as far back as 13,000 years ago, and farmers in the Andes have cultivated them for several thousand years. (The Incas in particular had a taste for taters.) Sweet potatoes took a while to migrate to Europe, but they became particularly popular with well-to-do English folks in the 16th and 17th centuries — in part because they were considered an aphrodisiac. They were eaten “to procure bodily lust, and that with greedinesse,” wrote John Gerard in a 1597 book of New World plants. By the turn of the 20th century in the United States, sweet potatoes had become less naughty and more of a Thanksgiving staple.

Where did “marshmallows” get their silly name?

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For some people, sweet potatoes simply must have marshmallows on top. Recipes that combined the two began to appear in the early 1900s, but marshmallow roots go back much further. Ancient Egyptian royalty ate the sap of Althaea officinalis, a mallow plant that grows in marshes, mixed with nuts and honey. Mallow sap also has been used to treat sore throats, coughs and diarrhea. In the 1800s, French candymakers whipped it with egg whites and sugar and poured it into molds, creating fussy, pricey delicacies that were the first modern(ish) marshmallows. By the 1900s, sap was replaced by more readily available egg whites or gelatin. In 1954, U.S. candymaker Alex Doumak invented the extrusion process that allowed mass production and brought marshmallows to the masses.

We might not have pumpkin pie or baked squash on the table if it weren’t for ...

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Wild squash in the Paleolithic era was tough and toxic and would have made lousy pie, said Logan Kistler, curator of archaeobotany at the National Museum of Natural History. But it thrived in clearings in the habitats of huge herbivores such as mastodons, which ate it and then defecated the seeds into new areas. When the mastodons died out about 12,000 years ago, squash lost its natural spreaders and the clearings they created. But the megafauna had kept the squash growing long enough for another alpha species to save it: humans. Early people found the wild squash useful — perhaps as bowls or tools, Kistler said — and ate the non-toxic seeds. They began to farm the softest, sweetest squash, and thousands of years later, pumpkin spice latte is a thing.

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What natural process made North America so hospitable for cranberries?

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Cranberries have grown wild in North America for thousands of years, since receding glaciers left cranberry-friendly organic deposits in meltwater ponds and wetlands. Native Americans in New England used cranberries in foods, drinks and medicines and as seasoning, so it’s possible the berries added a tangy taste to that first Thanksgiving. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Association, English settlers called the fruit “craneberries” because they thought the flower looked like a sandhill crane. In 1816, Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall of Massachusetts noticed that cranberries grew best with a layer of sand protecting the bog in cold weather, and he became the first to successfully cultivate cranberries in the United States.

Mythologically speaking, what was the first cornucopia?

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The ancient origin story behind the basketlike centerpiece on the table has two basic versions with many variations. In the Greek telling, baby Zeus was raised by nymphs and a magical nanny goat. At some point, one of the goat’s horns came off (in some stories, baby Zeus didn’t know his own strength and broke it off) and a never-ending stream of tasty god-food flowed out to whoever possessed the horn. In the Roman version, Hercules broke off a god-goat’s horn in a fight, also resulting in a bounty forever flowing from the horn. That’s why a cornucopia — “horn of plenty” in Latin — is shaped like a goat’s horn and is always seen overflowing with harvest goodness.

Additional sources

“Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick; “Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, 1989; Susan Milbrath, emeritus curator of Latin American art and archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History; Inside Adams blog by the Library of Congress; Boyer Candies; Chemical & Engineering News; “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths,” by Edgar Parin d'Aulaire and Ingri Parin d'Aulaire

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