The Origins of our Thanksgiving Dinner traditions

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! As we all sit down to enjoy our annual national feast, let’s think about something for a minute: where did we get the traditional dishes we associate with this time of year? Why, for example, do we eat turkey, or green bean casserole? Or cranberry sauce?

After all, the feast we call “The First Thanksgiving” back in 1621 would have looked very different from today’s Thanksgiving menus. Indeed, the so-called “First Thanksgiving” was not regarded as such by the Pilgrims or their native guests at all – it was more of an impromptu harvest festival than anything else, and it lasted several days. The food served would have been the stuff the colonists had grown all year: corn, squash, and beans. This was supplemented by fish and shellfish they caught, deer and wild fowl they hunted, and wild berries they picked. So where did today’s menu come from?

Well, there is some continuity from that first harvest festival. Turkey, for example, is recorded as being one of the foods they ate; specifically, wild turkeys that they brought in from hunting. However, turkey was so plentiful in colonial times it was considered an everyday food. Up until the mid-19th century, pork ribs were the meat of choice for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, largely because they were unavailable for most of the rest of the year. Pork was replaced by turkey around the time of the Civil War, in what appears to have been a gradual process that may have been influenced by the use of turkey replaced the goose as a traditional Christmas feast in England in the 17th century.

Gobble, gobble!

What about stuffing? The practice of stuffing the cavities of fowl for roasting dates at least to Roman times. The Roman author Apicius included stuffing recipes in his “De Re Coquinaria”. Thus, the idea of stuffing a turkey was probably just a natural extension of stuffing chickens and geese.

Other Thanksgiving dishes are far, far more recent. Green bean casserole is one of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes, and we can thank Dorcas Reilly and the Campbell’s Soup Company for it. In 1955, Reilly invented the recipe in order to find a holiday use for Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Its popularity came from its simplicity and flexibility; anyone could come up with their own custom version.

Cranberries are native to the United States and the early English colonists learned how to use them from their native neighbors. However, the modern incarnation of jellied cranberry sauce dates from the Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant ordered his military cooks to prepare some for his troops. In 1912, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce was launched, and became a popular dressing for turkey.

The most surprising origin story regarding our Thanksgiving traditions, though, is the story of why we celebrate it at all. While popular culture associates Thanksgiving with the Mayflower Pilgrims, the actual Thanksgiving tradition is of European origin. Protestants in Germany, Scandinavia and England devoted a day out of the year to spend in church, giving thanks to God for the blessings he had given them. There were Thanksgiving celebrations in Virginia colony years before the Mayflower’s voyage. Days of Thanksgiving were used to commemorate important events during the colonial era, American Revolution and early days of our independence, and were often celebrated on a state or regional basis. During the run-up to the Civil War, a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale promoted the idea of making Thanksgiving a regular, annual holiday throughout the nation, with a fixed date used by everyone. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln decided to do just that, in order to create a national symbol of unity as he fought to keep the Union from falling apart. Thus began the modern incarnation of Thanksgiving as we know it.

Information from Wikipedia, About.com, and The History Channel.

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