On Thursday, November 24, most of us will sit down at a table with family and friends and devour some delicious traditional foods. But what makes those specific foods traditional? Have we ever stopped to think about it?
We already know that pumpkin pie was much different during the first Thanksgiving. Because the settlers had access to gourds, they would roast and fill them with a custard-like mixture, then bake or stew that for the final product.
It’s debatable whether or not the pilgrims ate turkey during the first Thanksgiving. While there were wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, one of the most reliable colonist perspectives from that time suggests that turkeys were probably not used. In colonist Edward Winslow’s firsthand account, Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, he makes no specific mention of turkey, but does suggest that wild fowl was consumed. This is believed to be a number of things, most likely ducks or geese.
In fact, turkey would not become a holiday tradition until Thanksgiving became an official holiday. The idea that turkey would be the centerpiece of the meal came from another colonist, William Bradford, who wrote in journals that colonists hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621. When his journals were recovered around 1856, turkey became the go-to option when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Cranberry sauce is another staple of Thanksgiving, but it certainly didn’t originate with the pilgrims. While cranberries were prevalent at the time, and may have even been consumed during the first Thanksgiving, cooks didn’t begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment for meats until about 50 years later.
Stuffing has its origins in early American life, but not in the form we know today. Turkeys would be stuffed with oysters, as seafood was a major food source along the coast (in fact, the first Thanksgiving meal consisted of mostly seafood such as oysters, mussels, bass, and clams). The oysters were used to stretch out the bird, although this wouldn’t become a common dish until the 1800s.
Potatoes would be a major part of the first Thanksgiving, but sweet potatoes with marshmallows would be a delicacy that wouldn’t fully develop until the late 1800s. It was around this time, after Thanksgiving became an official holiday, that Northerners discovered sweet potatoes that had long been grown in the South. At the same time, marshmallows had been invented by the French. Once marshmallows became affordable and were mass produced, they were eventually paired with sweet potatoes in the early 1900s.