The Origins of Our Favorite Thanksgiving Dishes

Getting together with friends and family members is only half the fun that is involved with Thanksgiving. There is also the amazing food that we get to enjoy. Around this time of year, people start digging through old family recipes to perfectly create the ideal Thanksgiving feast. And while it may be popular these days to have a non-traditional dinner party with foods like pizza, tacos or Chinese cuisine, there is nothing that can beat a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

But when did favorites such as Sweet Potato Pie or Cranberry Sauce become a traditional part of the holiday feast? Here are a few origin stories behind some of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes so that you can impress your family members with your Thanksgiving history knowledge this year.

Apple Cider

Cider was the beverage of choice all throughout the nation many years ago. Later, unfermented, sweet cider would become more common on American dinner tables, but prior to the 1800s, the hard cider was the drink that many Americans preferred, especially those in New England. Introduced to North American from Europe, apple trees grew very well in the temperate climate, with many New England families pressing cider from their own orchards.

The production of apple cider was so successful that in 1767, Massachusetts colonists drank an estimated average of 35 gallons of cider per person. Many believed that it had healthy benefits and that it was safer to drink than water. Cider was more than a substitute for clean water however, A young John Adams wrote once that “The good life consisted of having Bacon and Cyder, and Books, and Girl and Friend.”

Adams and his fellow New Englanders had their ancestors’ ancient foes and their 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 later grow to love it and eventually they took cider across the Atlantic on their own quest for new lands.

Turkey

The traditional meat of choice that thousands of families across the nation enjoy on Thanksgiving may be the only link to the first Thanksgiving in 1621 that was shared by Pilgrims and Indians.

William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Plantation, tells us in his account of the colony’s early years that settlers diets that fall including wild turkey, venison, cod, bass, waterfowl and corn. The turkeys may have been quite welcome to the newcomers in their harsh and unfamiliar new surroundings. Thanks to the Spanish Imperial rivals, the English had been enjoying the meaty bird for many years. 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.

Cranberry Sauce

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.

Sweet Potatoes and Marshmallows

For many, this sweet combination is a Thanksgiving must-have. The caramelized gooey goodness owes itself in two developments of the 1800s. In the later part of the century, during the decades when the national Thanksgiving holiday became popular, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes, which had been eaten for many years in the South, and incorporated them into this 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.