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What Is the History of These 6 Thanksgiving Foods?

When did we start eating turkey for Thanksgiving? Find out the historical origins of common Thanksgiving foods, from turkey to pumpkin pie.

By Elizabeth Gamillo
Nov 15, 2023 3:00 PM
Family gathering around a table for thanksgiving
(Credit:Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock)


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When gathering for a Thanksgiving meal, a few staples adorn the table. From roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes, these fixings will surely be part of the feast. But ever wonder why these classic foods are commonly seen every year?

According to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, many foods enjoyed on American tables are from Mexico and South America. Here are how these foods made it to millions across the U.S. and how they are rooted in the country's early beginnings.

What Did They Eat at the First Thanksgiving?

(Credit: The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public Domain)

Only two known sources documented the types of foods eaten at the first Thanksgiving over 400 years ago. One account from a person present at the event is from a letter by Edward Winslow, one of the founders and governor of the Plymouth colony.

In the letter written on December 11, 1621, he describes the first successful harvest of corn and barley by the Puritans with aid from the local Wampanoag tribe. To celebrate the occasion, the settlers gathered waterfowl like ducks and geese, and venison. The letter states that Massasoit Ousamequin, the Wampanoag leader, gifted deer to the governor, per Julie Lesnick, an anthropologist at Wayne State University, according to The Conversation.

Waterfowl and venison aren't meals we recognize today as Thanksgiving staples. So, how did the six meals below become a part of the Thanksgiving table?

1. Roasted Turkey

(Credit: Bochkarev Photography/Shutterstock)

Indigenous tribes in Mexico domesticated turkeys around 2,000 years ago and the Spanish later brought them to Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. The dish was most likely introduced to the U.S. when Europeans settled the colonies across the East coast, according to the Smithsonian.  

By the early 1900s, turkey was a popular dish because of how common they were on homesteads. The bird's association with Thanksgiving may have started with novels written by authors Charles Dickens and Sarah Josepha Hale that mentioned the bird as a featured dish in scenes describing holiday dinners.

According to Britannica, Hale also campaigned to have Thanksgiving officially recognized as a national holiday. While George Washington declared Thanksgiving as a holiday in 1789, Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed in 1863 to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of November. Turkey as a traditional Thanksgiving dish was solidified in American myth soon after. 

2. Cranberries

(Credit: Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock)

As a wild fruit native to the U.S., indigenous peoples used cranberries for dyes and medicinal purposes. While cranberry sauce was probably not at the first Thanksgiving, the berries may have been eaten because they were plentiful. 

According to the Washington Post, an account of settlers from 1672 boiled the berries with sugar to accompany meat dishes. Later in the 18th century, the sauce was paired with turkey and cooked onions, as suggested by the 1796 cookbook American Cookery, according to the Post.

Cranberry sauce later became an American staple after the sweet treat was served to Union troops under the order of General Ulysses S. Grant during their Thanksgiving meal in 1864, according to Tennessee Tech. Now, you can find the delicacy in tin cans across grocery store shelves nationwide.

Read More: How These Top 10 Favorite Thanksgiving Dishes Impact Your Health

3. Mashed Potatoes

(Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock)

Potatoes were originally from South America and likely first cultivated in Peru about 8,000 years ago. During the 1500s, the Spanish brought the potato over to Europe. The first account of potatoes in the colonies was not until 1722, when a crop of potatoes was cultivated in Derry, New Hampshire, according to The Conversation.

So, potatoes were likely not at the first Thanksgiving feast. Mashed potatoes became a typical American dish by 1747, where they were enjoyed mashed with a heaping of butter, milk, cream, and salt.

Read More: Feeling Sleepy After a Thanksgiving Meal? It Might Not Be the Turkey

4. Corn Bread

(Credit: NatalyaBond/Shutterstock)

Corn was first domesticated in Mexico over 8,000 years ago, according to the Smithsonian. Cornbread originated from Indigenous cultures and was a simple recipe of cornmeal, water, a bit of salt, which was then roasted on a fire. The final dish would have looked like a tortilla.

Modern, cakey cornbread didn't pop-up until the 19th century when key ingredients like baking soda and buttermilk were used. By the 20th century, steel roller mills changed the quality of corn meal, and chemical leaveners sweeteners, and other flours were added to create the spongy cornbread seen on tables today, according to The Stanford Daily.

Read More: Interesting November Holidays That Are Rooted in Science

5. Stuffing

(Credit: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

Surprisingly, the first type of stuffing for the English in New England was probably made with oysters! Oysters were easy to find, free to catch, and were used in soups, sauces, pies, and stuffing for Turkeys, according to Texas A&M University.

Read More: Cooking a Turkey for Thanksgiving? Here's What To Do

6. Pumpkin Pie

(Credit: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

During the first Thanksgiving, pumpkins were already cultivated in England from seeds brought by the Spanish. Pumpkins were domesticated twice. The first time was an orange colored squash in Mexico 10,000 years ago, according to the Smithsonian.  

The second time was in the Eastern U.S. around 5,000 years ago when modern-day yellow and green summer squashes were cultivated from a gourd from the Ozark Mountains, according to the Smithsonian.

Pumpkin pie as a staple at the table was not standard until 1929 when canned pumpkin produced by the Libby company made baking the delicacy simpler and printed a recipe for the pie on the can's back. Before this, pumpkin also made an appearance as a pumpkin pudding recipe in the 1796 American Cookery book, and in Sarah Josepha Hale's novel, Northwood. Josepha Hale's book wrote that along with turkey, pumpkin pie was needed for a Thanksgiving meal, according to Bon Appétit.

Read More: Everything You Need And Want To Know About The Pumpkin

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