Ever stop to consider where your Thanksgiving feast came from?
If you’re thinking, “Mom roasted the turkey; Aunt Sara made the green bean casserole, and I didn’t see who brought that pie, but it looks like it came from a bakery,” that may be correct, but it’s not the answer we were looking for.
We’re talking about the history behind iconic Thanksgiving dishes, and the cultural implications of how we celebrate the day. Here’s a bit of Thanksgiving background, fact and trivia to chew on while you wait to devour — or digest — the feast.
WHO WAS FIRST? the Pilgrims, Or not?
Today, we acknowledge the 1621 feast at Plymouth Plantation as the great-great-granddaddy of Thanksgiving.
But Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Fla., celebrated a thanksgiving with imported pork and chickpeas in 1519, and sources say Spanish missionaries and American Indians shared a harvest dinner in Santa Fe around 1590.
Harvest feasts were common throughout Europe, and giving thanks to the creator played a central role in Indian cultures.
The acceptance of Plymouth Rock as the location is largely due to the appeal of its story — perseverant Pilgrims in pursuit of freedom joined by friendly Indian neighbors — and the dominance of Yankee culture in post-Civil War America.
Was turkey present at that Thanksgiving feast? Maybe. But probably not.
Wild turkeys were plentiful in New England when the forefathers arrived. But Edward Winslow’s eyewitness account merely states that four men went hunting and brought back a large number of fowl. Given the heft and inaccuracy of guns at that time, many experts think it was waterfowl — it’s easier to shoot large numbers of sitting ducks or geese than nimble, fast-moving turkeys.
Whatever the bird, it may not have been the most prized morsel on the proverbial plate. (The Pilgrims didn’t have actual plates.)
The Wampanoag offered up five deer. In Europe, venison was the prized preserve of noble estates. Commoners caught poaching faced stiff fines or even death.
There was no doubt that shellfish was at the table. And likely eel — a delicacy so beloved by the English that settlers around Cape Cod used lobster to bait their eel traps.
All the trimmings
Both Pilgrims and Wampanoag sometimes stuffed their fowl. But they used onions and herbs, not the bread stuffings we know today. (Wheat, a European import, didn’t arrive till later.)
If cranberries appeared, it was likely in Wampanoag dishes. Sugar was scarce and costly in England. If the Pilgrims had any at all, it certainly wasn’t in the quantity required to make anything resembling our cranberry sauce.
Potatoes are native to South America, and while they had made their way to Europe, they were not yet part of the English diet. If tubers were on the table, they were those known to the Wampanoag: Jerusalem artichokes, perhaps, or Indian turnips.
Pass the pumpkin pie
Pumpkin is likely to have made an appearance. New World pumpkins were well accepted in England by the time the Mayflower sailed, and while the Pilgrims were unfamiliar with the variety grown by the Wampanoag, it wouldn’t have seemed exotic.
A Plymouth historian suggests they may have dined on sobaheg, a Wampanoag stew of pumpkin (or other winter squash) along with corn, roots and beans. And perhaps they ate sweetened pumpkin, stewed in maple syrup.
But pumpkin pie was impossible, due to the aforementioned lack of sugar and flour. The first recipe for pumpkin pie was published later and calls for pumpkin slices set onto a crust — a far cry from the puréed pumpkin custards we bake today.
In any case, a pumpkin pie is arguably more “American” than apple pie. Pumpkins are indigenous to the Americas. Apples are not.
Save the date
For the Pilgrims and Puritans, a day of thanksgiving was a pious religious affair, declared occasionally in gratitude for various auspicious events, perhaps success in battle, or the end of a nasty drought.
As the colonial period progressed, the idea of an annual harvest festival became embedded, particularly in the Northeast. But the date remained random, declared by various leaders, held at different times in different places.
It would take a combination of feminine persuasion and political will to make the holiday a national affair and affix a specific date.
For years, Sarah Hale, editor of the influential magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, campaigned passionately for Thanksgiving to be declared a national holiday.
When she wrote to Abraham Lincoln pleading for him to declare a national Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November 1863, her cause hit political pay dirt.
Anxious to capitalize on recent victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving — in a proclamation that alluded to the union’s military prowess and robust economy, as well as that year’s bountiful harvest. (Ironically, Jefferson Davis declared a Thanksgiving in the Confederacy a year earlier, but then, as they say, history is written by the winners.)
Tradition marches on
The idea of drenching vegetables in cream sauce dates to at least the Middle Ages. By the early 20th century, American cookbooks were teeming with recipes for green beans (often combined with mushrooms or onions) bathed in a creamy sauce (sour cream, cheese, etc.) sometimes topped with something crispy and baked in a casserole.
But the ubiquitous green bean casserole of today is the invention of Campbell’s Soup Co., which published a recipe using its cream of mushroom soup in 1955. (The manufacturers of canned French fried onions must have been grateful to Campbell’s.)
If you enjoy scalloped corn, you could say it’s a descendant of colonial spoon bread, a soufflé-like dish of cornmeal mush and eggs.
And as beloved as turkey is — it’s estimated we consume more than 46 million holiday birds — it’s not for everyone.
One of the first commercially available brands of faux turkey was UnTurkey, produced by the since defunct Zen and Now. Numerous commercial options pick up the slack, including Tofurkey and VegeUSA, which produces a vegan “turkey,” molded to look creepily like the real deal.
Southerners often have a ham. And the curious or über-ambitious might serve Turducken, a boned turkey stuffed with a boned duck, stuffed with a boned chicken.
Notably not present
Women weren’t at the table at the Plymouth Rock feast. Nineteen women immigrated on the Mayflower, but only four survived until fall. Those who remained were too busy cooking the three-day meal to join in. Besides, it was seen as a bonding ritual between settlers and natives, and governance was off limits to women.
There was no football, of course, although that tradition came along sooner than you might suspect. In 1876, the student-run Intercollegiate Football Association had launched the concept of an annual Thanksgiving game.
Macy’s launched its Thanksgiving Parade in New York in 1924, the same year J.L. Hudson hosted its first parade in Detroit.
And while family food customs are rich with ethnic twists — tamales in the Southwest, steaming rice and crispy duck for Asians, soul food for African-Americans — Thanksgiving has long been seen as a quintessentially American feast.
It’s a time for the kind of sharing and hope that goes down as easily as a mouthful of gravy-slickened mashed potatoes, and warms you long after the last dish is washed and leftovers are tucked away.
Primary sources include “The American Plate,” by Libby H. O’Connell; “Thanksgiving, The Biography of an American Holiday,” by James W Baker; and the Plimoth Plantation website, www.plimoth.org.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer with a love of food, history and culture.