The Stories Behind America’s Favorite Thanksgiving Dishes

Have you ever wondered why you eat the food you eat on Thanksgiving? How did Turkey become the staple entrée in houses across America? The dishes we associate with this national holiday are definitley not the same as those eaten in 1621, so how did they become nationally recognized holiday food? Here are some of the stories behind three of the most popular Thanksgiving dishes, and why they are considered options during the holiday.



Ah, Turkey; the Thanksgiving mascot and staple item at the dinner table. Can you imagine a Thanksgiving diner without turkey?

According to William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, the colony’s early years that settlers’ diets that fall season included wild turkey along with other variations of meat. The best existing recollection, however, of the Pilgrims' famous feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. 

Giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in some parts of the country, but it wasn’t a recognized national holiday until President Lincoln made it so in 1863. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration; many of these early celebrations included - you guessed it - turkey. Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." 


Cranberry Sauce


To make cranberry sauce there are two main ingredients: cranberries and sugar. While the cranberries were probably easy to come by, the pilgrims did not have access to luxurious things like sugar at this point. Cranberries were most likely  present, but it's unlikely that the feast featured the popular sauce. Also, it's not entirely proven that cranberry sauce even existed at that point. 1663 marks the period in which visitors to the area began taking notice on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries. It is safe to assume that it wasn't coming out of the can quite yet.


Sweet Potatoes 


Speaking of things that may not have even been invented yet… Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621. So sweet potatoes with marshmallows was not served at the original Thanksgiving feast, unfortunately. In the late 1800s, when the national Thanksgiving holiday caught wind, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes — long eaten in the South — and began serving them with special meal. As for sweet potatoes and marshmallows, the first recipe of mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows dates to 1917 in a recipe written to encourage women to incorporate candy into their cooking. Basically, sweet potatoes were just a vessel to eat sweets in the middle of dinner. 


All in all, we are simply expiriencing a tradition that strays pretty far from the reality of the first 'Thanksgiving', which you probably could have guessed. Remember to ditch the belt on your pants for maximum stomach expansion during and after your meal. You may not be eating the original feast, but I hope you feast nonetheless. Happy Holidays!


Image Credit: 1, 2, 3