Why We Eat Turkey, Mashed Potatoes, and Stuffing on ThanksgivingThanksgiving dinner tradition predates our country’s independence. How has it changed over its nearly 400-year-long existence?

You might eat some of the very same dishes shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth in 1621, but chances are the dinner spread in your apartment looks a bit different than what was enjoyed at “the first Thanksgiving.” To understand how the traditional Thanksgiving dinner has evolved over time, let’s take a look at several of today’s most popular menu items and whether or not they appeared on the table at the first harvest celebration.

Turkey

Images of turkeys can be found everywhere. Decals plaster home and storefront windows, we even call those charity runs early on Thanksgiving mornings turkey trots. Barring vegetarians and those who decide to “skip Thanksgiving” and chow down on chow mein for convenience’s sake, almost every American eats turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Has this always been the case?

Possibly. Diaries documenting the first Thanksgiving make it clear there was plenty of meat at the harvest. Given what is known about the regional diet at the time, wild fowl of some sort was probably eaten throughout the course of the three days. Whether turkey was actually consumed, we may never know. Seafood and venison likely make up the bulk of the non-vegetarian fare available to the pilgrims and native Americans. However, historical records show turkey was already an integral part of the Thanksgiving meal by the time the American Revolution rolled around.

Stuffing

Stuffing fowl with onions and herbs before roasting them was a common practice. While it probably didn’t resemble Stove Top® (first introduced in 1972), stuffing of some sort was probably prepared and consumed at the first Thanksgiving. If this is the case, it makes stuffing the longest-standing Thanksgiving food tradition.

Mashed Potatoes

Ah, mashed potatoes. One of the few dishes all generations gobble with glee at most Thanksgiving tables. If you want to imagine you’re recreating the first harvest celebration by burying your face in a heaping pile of gravy-covered spuds, stop reading now.

Potatoes had not quite made it to Plymouth at the time of the first Thanksgiving. They were introduced to North America in or shortly after 1621, but did not become a part of America’s agricultural patchwork until 1719. Other plant roots, such as turnips, may have been present at the first Thanksgiving. But a documented lack of butter makes it hard to imagine they were very representative of most varieties of spuds enjoyed today.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are indigenous to New England, and certainly may have been consumed in one form or another at the first Thanksgiving. Experts believe insufficient sugar stores and a yet-to-be-discovered method of preparing cranberries, however, rules out any likelihood that cranberry sauce is an original dish.

Still, cranberry sauce is one of the oldest traditions. By the late 17th-century, it was popular to boil cranberries with sugar. Sometime in the next century, it was discovered that cranberry sauce paired nicely with Turkey. By 1800, it was featured on most extant Thanksgiving menus.

Pumpkin Pie

While we also know with near certainty there was no pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving dinner, it’s not inconceivable there was some sort of sweet dish containing pumpkin. Some accounts of the 1621 harvest festival describe a sweet pumpkin custard made from filling pumpkin shells with honey, milk, and spices before roasting them.

A time-honored tradition that is one of the nation’s most culturally important, the Thanksgiving celebration means just as much to many Americans today as it has to our ancestors for centuries. The changing menu is representative of shifts in available produce, dietary preferences, and cooking styles over time. Whatever the meal on your Thanksgiving dinner table contains, we hope you enjoy it and feel thankful for the food, friends, family, and other beautiful things in life.

Regional cooking practices have influenced the Thanksgiving menu in many parts of the country. What special dishes do you prepare for Thanksgiving that are not a part of the national dinner spread?

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About Jason Ernst


Jason received degrees in International Studies, Economics, and German Literature from the University of Arizona in 2011, and has worked as a freelance writer ever since. His research and writing interests include interior decoration and design, home entertainment, history, art, architecture, and travel. He is currently a regular contributor to the AMLI Residential lifestyle blog. Circle Jason on Google+