The History of Thanksgiving Foods

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Audrey Perrault

The known traditional foods of Thanksgiving are turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and butternut squash. Some families even spice it up a bit and make a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top. But why do we eat the same foods every year on Thanksgiving, and when did these foods become traditional? 

In the first Thanksgiving meal, there were not nearly the same foods we have grown to love today.  There are only two surviving documents that state what was eaten in the first Thanksgiving. Food 52 states what was found in the documents. “They describe a feast of freshly killed deer, assorted wildfowl, a bounty of cod and bass, and flint, a native variety of corn harvested by the Native Americans, which was eaten as cornbread and porridge.” None of these foods are put on the table for the feast we know today.

In the first Thanksgiving dinner, there was no turkey. The wildfowl cooked was most likely duck or geese, so why do we eat turkey now? Turkey was introduced to Thanksgiving in 1947. That means that for less than 100 years, we have relied heavily on eating Turkey every year on this day. Turkey was introduced because it was large enough to feed a whole family but also uncommon enough to be used for a special occasion. The reason for using turkey was explained well by  “Unlike chickens or cows, they don’t serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn’t so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.” Using a turkey for this joyous occasion was perfect. 

Thanksgiving became a holiday in 1863 when President Lincoln declared it to be a national holiday. Thanksgiving was announced to be celebrated every fourth Thursday of the month of November for the years to come. Before this time Thanksgiving was not celebrated every year, and in 1863 lots of people didn’t even think to celebrate it. The holiday that is celebrated today came about when Thanksgiving was seen as a holiday to celebrate peace and unity. A quote by states how Thanksgiving is seen today. “The Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends.”

Although the foods we eat today weren’t on the menu in 1621, when the first Thanksgiving occurred, some of the foods were still introduced early on. In the second celebration, it was believed that pumpkin pie was added to the table. The pumpkin pie made then was not nearly the pumpkin pie we normally eat today. About forty-two years later, in 1663, cranberry sauce was added to the menu when sugar was brought to the colonies. states “It’s not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.” 

The menu for the Thanksgiving meal has changed greatly over the years due to many different factors. But what we all can agree on is that there are some foods that stay the same no matter how many years pass. As time progresses we tend to reach for the same traditional foods that have been around for over a century. That being said, the foods on the table this year will never be the same as the foods served the first Thanksgiving. When you sit down to eat Thanksgiving dinner this year, be thankful you are not eating geese like the Puritans during the first Thanksgiving.