In a few days from today, many of us will sit down to a lavish meal with our families on Thanksgiving Day. Close your eyes and imagine the dishes that will cover your table: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
But the first Thanksgiving dinner was likely a more meager affair that lacked many of the dishes we’ve come to associate with a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Turkey was probably not the centerpiece of the meal as it is today; instead, the pilgrims of 1621 most likely dined on goose, duck, swan or passenger pigeon. The birds would have been stuffed with onions, herbs and even nuts, but not the bread-based stuffing we commonly eat today. The three-day meal shared by the colonists and Wampanoag likely also included a variety of seafood like eel, lobster, clam and mussels.
Many modern American side dishes we’ve come to associate with Thanksgiving would have been missing from that first Thanksgiving meal. The colonists did not have butter or wheat flour, so there would have been no pumpkin pie. White potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberries had yet to make their way to North America, so there were no mashed potatoes, candied yams or cranberry sauce.
The modern Thanksgiving celebration came about in the 19th century at a time when many Americans felt nostalgic for colonial times. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular 19th century women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, was instrumental in establishing Thanksgiving as a holiday. Not only did Hale petition 13 US presidents to make Thanksgiving a national Holiday (the last was Abraham Lincoln, who approved of her pitch to unite the country in the middle of the Civil War in 1863); she also published almost a dozen cookbooks containing forerunners of what we think of as traditional Thanksgiving dishes.
The Thanksgiving meal today contains common elements no matter where you celebrate: the aforementioned turkey, mashed and sweet potatoes, cranberries and pie. A traditional southern Thanksgiving meal might include glazed ham, either as an alternative or complement to the turkey. Some southerners choose to incorporate elements you might see at a barbecue by serving cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and buttermilk biscuits. Casserole-style side dishes like sweet potatoes topped with pecans and green bean casserole topped with bread crumbs or onion strings are also popular in the South.
No matter what’s on your Thanksgiving table, everyone seems to have fond memories of Thanksgiving dinner.