Top of page

The Chronicle-Star combined with the Moss Point Advertiser (Pascagoula, MS), November 26, 1943.

How Thanksgiving Cuisine Earned a Place at the Table

Share this post:

Detail from a newspaper of a banner of six pumpkins in a row with the word Thanksgiving spanning across them, two letters of the word on each pumpkin.
The Eureka Sentinel (Eureka, NV), November 28, 1914.

We drink champagne on New Year’s Eve, BBQ on the 4th of July, and binge candy on Halloween–but Thanksgiving is the one American holiday wholly defined by its cuisine. We might imagine that the seasonal dishes synonymous with the holiday were the same consumed by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians at the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, but some of today’s time-honored classics didn’t make the holiday menu for hundreds of years.  Here’s a brief history (and recipes!) of some of the dishes that have come to represent a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Detail of a collage image from a newspaper with the headline: Thanksgiving--Some Eats! Below the headline is a boy holding a live turkey in his arms (left), a girl wearing a bonnet kneeled in a field (right), with a drawn image of a collection of harvest vegetables (top right).
The Jasper News (Jasper, MO), November 23, 1922.

 

Turkey

Turkey is at the center of the classic Thanksgiving feast. Today we eat domesticated turkeys, which come from wild turkeys, a species only native to the Americas, making the bird an all-American entrée. If both Benjamin Franklin and James Audubon had their way, the turkey would have been the national bird instead of the Bald Eagle. While there is no record of the exact menu of the first Thanksgiving, there are two surviving documents that reference the meal. The first is in a letter dated December 11, 1621, written by colonist Edward Winslow who attended the feast and wrote:

…our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.

This implies that fowl was probably present at the first Thanksgiving, but it isn’t clear what kind. Wild turkeys would have been plentiful in the area at that time, but the colonists may have likely eaten other birds, such as geese, ducks, swans, or pigeons–chickens would have been considered more valuable for their eggs at the time. It’s also likely that in addition to fowl, venison, lobster, and other shellfish were consumed. 

The second reference is noted in “Of Plimoth Plantation,” a famous (and once lost) account of the founding of the Plymouth Colony by its first governor William Bradford. He wrote:

“…besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkies, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.

Bradford’s manuscript had disappeared from Boston’s Old South Church around the time of the American Revolution, possibly stolen by British soldiers quartered there, as it unexpectedly turned up in the private library of the Bishop of London in 1856. The journal was then reprinted and found an audience by those who advocated for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday.

In the earliest accounts of 19th century Thanksgiving dinners, many of which are from New England where celebrating an abundant harvest and giving thanks was an established tradition, turkey was a main attraction as noted by several prominent New Englanders. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, describes an elaborate turkey dinner in her recollections of her childhood Thanksgivings in Connecticut in her book Oldtown Folks (1869)

Turkey was also a good choice for practical reasons–the bird was easy to keep and big enough to feed an entire family for cheap, which helped to make turkey the eventual go-to choice for a Thanksgiving day meal.

Image from a newspaper featuring a dressed roast turkey on a platter (center) surrounded by various side dishes for a Thanksgiving meal.
Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 20, 1961.

Too much turkey?

Turn your turkey leftovers into glamorous entrees using some of these recipes:

Detail of a newspaper page featuring an article and recipes with two images of food dishes. The headline reads: Preview of Leftovers That Have Glamour.
“Preview of Leftovers That Have Glamour,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 20, 1951.

 

Stuffing

The South calls it dressing. The Northeast calls it stuffing. And the Pennsylvania Dutch call it filling. Regardless of what you call it, the tasty mixture of bread and herbs used to fill the turkey at Thanksgiving is a favorite staple of the holiday meal. It is likely that the Pilgrims were aware of the concept of stuffing–a reference to stuffing is found in De re Coquinaria, the oldest known cookbook in existence attributed to a Roman chef named Apicius that dates back to the 1st century AD. However, by the Fall of 1621, it is said that the Plymouth colonists lacked many supplies including flour and butter, so there was probably no traditional bread stuffing like we enjoy today. It is more likely they filled birds with shelled chestnuts, onions, and herbs for flavor.

Mentions of stuffed turkey with Thanksgiving can be found in newspapers as early as the 1830s. When stuffing started coming out of the bird and prepared as a side dish can be attributed to the introduction of Stove Top instant stuffing in 1972, which came in a box and could be prepared on the stove or in a microwave. Today, most of us cook stuffing in a casserole dish in the oven. 

Detail image from a newspaper featuring a cut open roast turkey filled with stuffing. A hand is depicted (top right) holding a spoon full of stuffing above the bird.
Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 13, 1958.

Cornbread, and raisins, and sausage, oh my!

When it comes to making Thanksgiving stuffing, there are so many options! You can try this recipe for chestnut stuffing to make something like what the Pilgrims may have made. Or you can follow actress and comedian Gracie Allen’s recommendation for this simple cornbread stuffing recipe with directions for oyster, raisin, and sausage variations:

Detail from a newspaper featuring an image of comedian Gracie Allen holding a spoon above a roast turkey. Below the image is a short article and a recipe for stuffing. The headline reads: A Simple Stuffing Even Gracie Can Make.
The Glacier Reporter (Browning, MT), November 21, 1957.

 

Mashed Potatoes and Gravy

Though European immigrants introduced potatoes to the Americas in the 17th century, they were not grown on a large scale until the early 18th century, so it is unlikely that there were any potatoes, mashed or otherwise, served at the first Thanksgiving. Some say that the modern version of mashed potatoes that we eat today first appeared in The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse written in 1747, which was popular in Britain and in its colonies. How mashed potatoes became a mainstay of the Thanksgiving feast, however, is linked to the story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday. 

President George Washington was the first to proclaim a “public day of thanksgiving” in November 1789, setting a precedent for sitting presidents to declare a “national day of thanks.” These declarations, however, were not observed on a fixed date until President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863. Lincoln’s decision was inspired by the decades-long campaign by prolific author and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who had petitioned Congress and five different presidents to create a national annual holiday. Hale believed that Thanksgiving could pull the country together as slavery tore the nation apart. In addition to writing about the holiday in her novel Northwood (1827), she also wrote about it in the magazine she edited, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which includes descriptions of Thanksgiving food and recipes for mashed potatoes. 

While there is no interesting story as to why we have gravy at Thanksgiving, cooking meat in sauce is nothing new. The practice dates back centuries and, in fact, the term “gravy” was found in The Forme of Cury, a cookbook compiled by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II in 1390 AD. While it cannot be said for certain, it would not have been unlikely at the first Thanksgiving for a bird to be roasted and the remains boiled to make a broth, then that broth thickened with grains to make a gravy. 

Detail image from a newspaper featuring two pots of food: a pot of mashed potatoes (left) and a pot of au gratin potatoes (right).
Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 30, 1961.

Potato, Potahto

For me, mashed potatoes are a staple of my Thanksgiving Day meal, but perhaps you prefer scalloped potatoes–or au gratin potatoes–or sweet potatoes, which are a Thanksgiving classic in their own right. Here are some recipes to try for whatever your taste:

Detail image from a newspaper featuring a pot of scallop potatoes. The text below states: Turkey Scallop--Last bits of Thanksgiving turkey go into bubbly scalloped potatoes, combines with a quick sauce of condensed cream of mushroom soup.
“Turkey Scallop,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 24, 1953.
Detail of a newspaper article with the headline: Potatoes au Gratin.
“Potatoes Au Gratin,” San Antonio Light (San Antonio, TX), January 1, 1926.
Detail of a newspaper article with the headline: Oranged Sweet Potatoes.
“Oranged Sweet Potatoes,” Carbon County News (Red Lodge, MT), November 17, 1939.

 

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are another all-American food–they are one of only a dozen fruits that are native to North America. Native Americans had been growing and eating the fruit for centuries, even as a sauce. In one account by American colonist John Josselyn in 1671:

“The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat; and it is a delicate Sauce, especially for roasted Mutton: Some make Tarts with them as with Goose Berries.”

The first reference to “cranberry sauce” in a recipe can be found in America’s first cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796). While cranberries would have been in abundance at the time of the first Thanksgiving, cranberry sauce, as we know it today, was likely not on the menu. Sugar was not widely available at the time and colonists would not have had the means to sweeten the berries. If cranberries were consumed at the feast, they most likely would have come in the form of pemmican–a mixture of pounded dried meat, melted lard, and cranberries–a dish traditionally made by North American Indians.

In 1912, Ocean Spray–the company that had revolutionized the cranberry harvesting process in the early 1800s–began crushing the berries into canned jellied cranberry sauce. This maximized the yield by utilizing the imperfect berries and making it easier than ever for every American home to have cranberry sauce.

Detail of a collage image from a newspaper with the headline: Cranberries for Thanksgiving. Depicted are several photos of cranberry harvesting.
The Abbeville Press and Banner (Abbeville, SC), November 23, 1910.

Lay Off the Sauce

If the controversy over homemade vs. canned cranberry sauce is too polarizing in your household this Thanksgiving, try incorporating the berries into dessert with this cranberry sherbet recipe:
Detail of a newspaper article with the headline: Turkey Attended by Cranberries a Tradition.
Worchester Democrat and the Ledger-Enterprise (Pocomoke City, MD), November 18, 1938.

 

Pumpkin Pie

It is almost certain that there was no pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving. According to David J. Silverman, author of the book This Land is Their Land, the colonists did not have the supplies of butter, wheat flour, or sugar needed to make pies. They would, however, have had access to pumpkins, which are native to the Americas. It is said that Native Americans had already been consuming pumpkins as a dessert, baking it on a dying fire and moistening it with syrup or honey. Like mashed potatoes, the popularity of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving has been attributed to Sarah Hale’s culinary descriptions of the holiday’s food in her magazine. 

Life of Pie

“There is no dessert that seems to embody the spirit of fall more,” said the Evening Star, and what better way spruce up “your autumn atmosphere” no matter where you live, than with a pumpkin pie!

Detail of a newspaper article with the headline: Filling Varies According to the Preferences of Different Localities. The image to the left of the article featured a pumpkin pie with the heading: Symbolic of Autumn...
Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 10, 1940.

Now who’s hungry?

We obviously did not cover all the classic cuisine of a traditional Thanksgiving–corn, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, candied yams, dinner rolls, cornbread–but if you’ve got the goods, please share in the comments!

Detail image from a newspaper that states: Have a Happy Thanksgiving Day. A drawn image of a pilgrim man with a gun over his shoulder and a turkey hanging from the gun is depicted top left.
Kodiak Mirror (Kodiak, AK), November 17, 1961.
Discover more:

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.