Ask the people around the table on Thursday about the history of Thanksgiving, and most will say something about the Pilgrims. If any Floridians or Southwesterners are present, you might find yourself in a debate about whether the first feast was held at Plymouth, St. Augustine or El Paso. Only a few might mention the Civil War.
This has been a big year for 150th anniversaries in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1. Gettysburg in early July. The Gettysburg Address just a few days ago. And coming up on Thursday, Thanksgiving.
True, settlers in English and Spanish colonies celebrated thanksgivings in their earliest years. And throughout the 1800s, New Englanders held such observances with their families and friends. But as a national event, the holiday dates to 1863. That year, President Lincoln proclaimed “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” for the nation’s blessings in the face of the Civil War that was raging.
Why, then, do we associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims? In the late 1800s, with immigrants — Jews, Italians, Chinese, other outsiders — pouring in, America’s cultural leaders took two bits of shaky historic evidence from the early 1600s and embraced a story of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in an effort to Americanize an increasingly diverse population.
The myth of our holiday’s Pilgrim origins took hold. But the dishes we eat at Thanksgiving? They capture other stories about the making of the American nation.
Cider was once the national beverage. Later, unfermented, sweet cider would become more common on American tables, but before the mid-1800s, the hard stuff was the drink of choice for Americans — New Englanders most of all. Introduced to North America from Europe, apple trees grew well in the temperate climate, with many New England families pressing cider from their own orchards.
Production was so successful that in 1767, Massachusetts colonists drank an estimated average of 35 gallons of cider per person. Many believed it was more healthful and safer to drink than water. Cider was much more than a substitute for clean water, however. The good life, a young John Adams wrote in 1765, consisted of having “Bacon, and Cyder, and Books and Girl and Friend.” Adams and his fellow New Englanders had their ancestors’ ancient foes and New Englanders’ traditional menace — the French — to thank for their favorite drink. Medieval Normans had brought cider with them across the English Channel. The people they conquered in 1066 would grow to love it and eventually took it across the Atlantic on their own quest for new lands.
The bird on many Americans’ Thanksgiving tables today might be about the only thing that connects our national holiday with the romanticized meal in 1621 shared by Pilgrims and Indians and studied by so many generations of American schoolchildren.
William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, tells us in his account of the colony’s early years that settlers’ diets that fall included wild turkey along with venison, cod, bass, waterfowl and corn. The turkeys might have been quite welcome to the newcomers in their harsh and unfamiliar new surroundings. Thanks to their Spanish imperial rivals, the English had been enjoying the meaty bird for decades. Spaniards had encountered turkeys in their early forays in the New World and had brought the fowl back home.
Turkey became popular across Western Europe and around the Mediterranean and was one of the first American foods to be widely eaten in Europe. So well established in England was the New World bird that English settlers brought domesticated turkeys to America in the colonies’ first years.
Although certain varieties of cranberry grow in parts of Europe, the turkey’s most popular dinner companion tells a story of New World cultural exchange. The fruit’s name is a legacy of 17th century German settlers in America. Called in medieval England “moss-berry” and other similar terms that allude to the fruit’s boggy habitat, English-speakers borrowed their German neighbors’ term “kranberee,” which refers to the long, cranelike stamens of the plant.
The fruit’s use draws on native food culture. Indigenous peoples had long raised and eaten the berries. A 1672 account of the colonies reported that “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.” Cranberry sauce has been paired with turkey, in particular, since at least the 18th century. Amelia Simmons, author of “American Cookery,” published in 1796, suggested serving roast turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry-sauce.” But, she added, the turkey might also be paired with pickled mangoes, which in the 1790s were imported from India and sold in American cities. How differently might we taste and think about Thanksgiving had the tropical fruit become the typical accompaniment instead.
Americans have been stuffing turkeys with oysters for centuries. Now a treat, oysters were once plentiful and for centuries were the most commonly eaten shellfish in America. At home, cooks filled turkeys and other birds with oysters to stretch the pricier fowl. They also made loaves, sauces, pies, soups and stews with the inexpensive protein.
Eaten as cooked food at home, oysters were often consumed raw from street carts, typically run by African Americans who found grueling but independent work in the oyster trade. Americans also ate their favorite shellfish at the oyster saloons that proliferated in the 19th century as stagecoaches, canals and railroads made it possible to distribute the bivalves, which had been shipped inland in the 1700s, even more readily. Although special dishes — such as oyster stuffing in New England, Oysters Rockefeller in New Orleans or Hangtown Fry in San Francisco — distinguished particular regions, by the mid-1800s, the expanding country had a national oyster market and was united in a national oyster craze.
For many, the Thanksgiving meal must include sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The happy marriage of the tuber with caramelized, gooey goodness owes itself to two developments of the 1800s. In the late part of the century, in the decades when the national Thanksgiving holiday took hold, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes — long eaten in the South — and incorporated them into the special meal.
Meanwhile, marshmallows had been recently invented by those culinary trendsetters, the French, who beat the roots of the marshmallow plant with egg whites and sugar to make a chewy treat. Handmade and something of a luxury at first, marshmallows became more affordable after entrepreneurs substituted more widely available gelatin for marshmallow root and, in an era that was developing mass production techniques more generally, figured out how to manufacture an affordable product on a grand scale. In 1917, the Angelus Marshmallows company distributed a recipe booklet that taught Americans how they might use marshmallows. With that, the classic pairing had arrived.
Relatively new to the Thanksgiving meal, tamales are one of the oldest American foods.
A Mesoamerican dish that dates back millenniums, tamales in their simplest form are masa (maize dough) wrapped in either corn husks or banana or plantain leaves, steamed and then unwrapped to be eaten. The masa can also be filled with beans, meat, vegetables or cheese.
Tamales are an everyday food but also have special places on holiday tables in Mexico and Central America. In Mexico, they are eaten at Day of the Dead celebrations in early November. In the U.S. Southwest, a region where culinary traditions have long been shaped by ties to what is now Mexico, special tamales filled with beef and red chilies are made for Christmas. Thanks to recent Latin American immigration to the United States, tamales are increasingly showing up on Thanksgiving tables as well. With a name derived from the Nahuatl word “tamalli,” this hearty newcomer to our national meal highlights the fact that Latin American immigrants often have Indian ancestry. Mexican-American Indians are now the fourth-largest native group in the United States.
Whether it’s served with beans, in risotto or pilaf, as a stuffing or simply steamed, rice has a leading place at our national meal. It also has always had a leading place as an American export crop. In the British American colonies, rice farming began in the 1600s and relied on enslaved Africans who supplied not only the brutally hard labor but also the knowledge of rice cultivation that made the crop succeed.
By the 1800s, South Carolina, the heart of the early American rice industry, exported millions of pounds of rice to the West Indies and Europe. After the Civil War, the Carolina rice industry declined and rice production shifted southwestward. Today, the United States is the third-largest rice-exporting nation in the world, with the rice industry now centered in Arkansas. On Thursday, as millions of us sit down to meals that feature rice, so, too, will millions around the world enjoy the grain, thanks to American farmers.
The quintessential pie marries an indigenous American food already familiar to English colonists, thanks to the vegetable’s introduction to Europe in the 1500s, with an economical English culinary tradition of filling crust with meat, vegetable or fruit. Colonists cultivated pumpkin from their earliest years in the New World, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes from the 1600s.
The dessert did not often show up on Thanksgiving tables until the early 1800s, but by later in the century, pumpkin pies were so closely associated with the holiday that in 1869, the (Hartford) Connecticut Courant referred to the pie, along with turkey, as the “inevitable” Thanksgiving dishes. Lately this classic has been showing up in a new guise, thanks to one of the newest movements in American cuisine: Pumpkin pie has gone vegan. Vegan cookbooks, mainstream food magazines and grocery stores feature pies made with pumpkin, tofu (for structure) and the traditional spices, but no eggs, butter or milk: Influenced, often unknowingly, by the Buddhist religion’s compassion for animals, vegans eschew eating animal products. English piemaking, a Central American vegetable, and an Asian religion meet in this new twist on an old American dessert.
Amanda Moniz is a historian and former pastry chef. She blogs at historysjustdesserts.com.