The origin of Thanksgiving is often traced to a 1621 meal between Puritans and Native Americans, recorded by an Englishman named Edward Winslow. But food historian and professor at the Culinary Institute of America, Dr. Beth Forrest, says the tradition is likely tied to a public celebration and shared meal that occurred in 1623, to express thanks for a bout of rainfall that saved the colonists from a long drought. After this, local ministers started to call for such observances regularly.
The earliest Thanksgiving meals likely had plenty of wildfowl; seafood like cod, lobster, and eel; as well as berries and plums, Forrest explained in an email interview. But it wasn’t until the 19th century, when president Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday, that our modern Thanksgiving came to be.
Traditions Across the U.S.
The holiday became closely tied with the national identity and the romantic idea of Pilgrim and Native American conciliation. Turkey became the staple dish of choice, since it was an indigenous bird, explained Liz Williams, president of the National Food and Beverage Foundation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying America’s food cultures. Cranberries were also popular for the same reason.
But mostly, “people used whatever was available in each part of the country,” said Williams in a phone interview. In New England, that meant lots of root vegetables, apples, maple syrup, and potatoes, while in the Southeast, rice, cornmeal, and sweet potatoes were incorporated into many dishes. In the Gulf South, fish, oysters, or shrimp would be prepared as well, as they were cooked for festive occasions. In southern states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, curing ham is an old tradition. The dinner table would include both ham and turkey.
Because of the abundance of meat in the Midwest region, the stuffing often includes sausage for extra oomph, Williams said. In the Southwest, chili peppers provide the boost of flavor. The states on the Pacific coast are younger, so “their traditions are less bound,” Williams said. Some non-native ingredients replace traditional ones, such as quinoa, in lieu of rice.
After World War II, a culture of convenience gave rise to dishes like green bean casserole and sweet potatoes and marshmallows. “[The intention was] it would make your life easier. Take a can of green beans, a can of mushroom soup, mix it all together, put it in the oven, and you get a casserole,” Williams said.
A Melting Pot of Flavors
As immigrants from all parts of the world populated the country, their food traditions also became part of Thanksgiving. Dr. Forrest explained that the staple foods of African slaves, such as collard greens and black-eyed peas, formed the basis of the Southeastern meal, while in Baltimore, where many German families immigrated to, sauerkraut often appeared on the table.
In Dr. Forrest’s own family, “my uncle, who is Italian-American, has an antipasti and pasta course (lasagne) as part of his Thanksgiving meal,” she wrote in an email interview.
And that’s what makes the holiday so delightful: everyone can partake and contribute their part to their family customs.