Thanksgiving, like most holidays, has grown and transformed over the years from simple beginnings into the holiday as we know it today. When the Plymouth Pilgrims feasted the Wampanoag Indians in 1621, they could never have imagined that their gathering would become the foundation of one of the biggest holidays in America.
The modern Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and takes place on the fourth Thursday of November. It is now associated with parades, Black Friday and American Football rather than the original religious intention of offering thanks. However, food still plays an integral part throughout the day as friends and family congregate for a great feast of seasonal dishes.
The feast widely acknowledged as the ‘first’ Thanksgiving was organised by Governor William Bradford to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. They offered thanks to the local Indian tribes for their assistance and instruction as the two groups came together over a feast that lasted for three days. There is no official record of the menu that was served then but historians have gathered as much information as they could about the meal to give us a more accurate picture of the event.
The bill of fare for a ‘traditional’ American Thanksgiving includes staples such as pumpkin pie, all sorts of potato dishes and the star of the show is usually a large, stuffed, roast turkey. In fact Americans consume nearly 50 million turkeys at Thanksgiving, double the amount eaten at Christmas!
Although turkeys did feature in the Pilgrim diet, it is not known whether they were consumed at the first Thanksgiving. Chronicler Edward Winslow recorded how men were sent out ‘fowling’ for the banquet but it is just as likely that the group were eating other birds too such as geese, duck or swans.
Other meat was supplied by the Wampanoag guests who arrived with several deer which would have been roasted over a fire or made into a venison stew. The all-important stuffing that is now made with bread probably consisted of nuts instead, crushed up with onions and herbs.
New England is renowned for its seafood and it is highly likely that it featured heavily in the feast. Mussels would have been easiest to obtain but there could also have been lobster and oysters present. The omission of seafood is one of the largest developments in the history of the Thanksgiving meal.
Another notable difference between the banquet in 1621 and that of today is the important addition of potatoes, which weren’t introduced to Europe or brought to North America for another 150 years. The ‘traditional’ potato dishes of today have probably replaced other plant roots such as turnips and groundnuts.
Other vegetables that would have been served include onions, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas and the harvest of corn which they were celebrating although it would have been presented as cornmeal instead of on the cob. While pumpkin and other squashes were consumed in the area, the lack of butter, flour, sugar and an oven means it would have been impossible for the Pilgrims to have baked pies like the ones eaten today.
Another staple of the modern Thanksgiving meal is cranberry sauce yet it too was not present on the original banquet table. This is due to the depleting reserves of sugar at the time, although cooks did begin boiling fruits with sugar once the trade routes became more regular.
As authentic traditional and classic dishes gave way to alternatives on Thanksgiving menus you will also find that dishes have developed in a regional specific manner. In Canada you may be presented with wild rice dishes or a Tomato Aspic, a tradition from Ontario. In the South certain dishes have pride of place in a Thanksgiving spread such as Bourbon-Raisin Pecan Pie, Mac and Cheese and Sweet Potato Pie. Their version of stuffing is called Dressing and is based on corn bread and biscuits.
New England favourites include Beet and Apple Salad, Creamed Onions, Concord grape Pie and Indian pudding but it is Indiana that specialises in Persimmon pudding, America’s version of a Christmas pudding. Possibly the most famous regional specialty hails from Louisiana. The ‘Turducken’ is a duck stuffed in a chicken stuffed in a turkey which is all stuffed with stuffing. This festive challenge is the epitome of festive gluttony and sounds like a total waste of good meat!
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Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is a features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo