Thanksgiving is the oldest holiday in America, which means that it comes with a lot of traditions and customs that have been around for hundreds of years. Today, we may not eat exactly what colonists and Native Americans were eating so many years ago, but many of the classic Turkey Day dishes we know and love have a long and interesting history behind them. Instead of just mindlessly digging into your delicious plate of food, wouldn’t it be a little more fun to know the backstory there? Here’s a look at the history of the most popular Thanksgiving foods out there.
1. Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin pie can be traced back to the 1600s, when European settlers first discovered pumpkins in America and brought them back to England. Back then, there were several different ways to make pumpkin pie, like an early New England recipe that included hollowing out a pumpkin and filling it with spiced, sweetened milk, then cooking it directly in a fire.
Pumpkin pie was a Thanksgiving dinner (or dessert) staple by the 18th century, and after the Civil War, it became popular all over the nation.
It’s not Thanksgiving dinner without a huge, roasted turkey, and it seems like it’s always been that way. It hasn’t, though: Turkey didn’t become a staple of the holiday until the mid 19th century. There’s no evidence that early Pilgrims had turkey at the first Thanksgiving. While they did bring fowl, it was most likely duck or goose. So, we don’t know exactly where it came from or why it became so popular, but many believe it was due to its large size and ability to feed a lot of people. Turkeys were also readily available and affordable.
According to Britannica, Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow wrote about a “great store of wild Turkies” in reference to Thanksgiving, and that may have eventually linked the holiday, turkeys, and pilgrims together.
3. Sweet Potato Casserole
Sweet potato casserole, or sweet potatoes baked with toasted marshmallows and plenty of brown sugar, is a Thanksgiving favorite (how could it not be?). The sweet potato itself has been around since the country was born—Columbus brought them back to Spain after going to America.
As for sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows? That didn’t become a popular recipe until 1917, when it was created by a company called Angelus Marshmallows (the original maker of Cracker Jacks). According to Saveur, the company was trying to make marshmallows popular, so they put out a cookbook in 1917 that included sweet potatoes topped with them, and it stuck!
Corn was very popular back in the early days of the country, because corn was basically everywhere. It’s not surprising that cornbread actually originated with the Native Americans. But back in those days, it didn’t taste as great as it tastes now. According to Southern Living, the original cornbread was just cornmeal and water stirred together, then baked over an open fire. It didn’t start to get tasty until things like buttermilk and eggs became more common ingredients.
Whether you refer to it as stuffing or dressing, or you serve it inside the turkey or outside, one thing is for sure: you probably have it every year. We don’t know if the Pilgrims had it, but History.com points out that it’s very likely that the first Thanksgivings included some sort of wild game served with wild rice. As the years went by, New Englanders added chestnuts, Bostonians made oyster-based recipes, and Southerners used cornbread as a base.
6. Mashed Potatoes
According to The Federalist, some historians actually trace mashed potatoes back to the Incas in Peru in 5,000-8,000 B.C. – although, of course, they didn’t eat them how we do today, with tons of butter and toppings. Some say this more modern version of mashed potatoes first appeared in The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse in the 18th century, which was very popular in Britain and its colonies.
Others say the recipe originated with Antoine Parmentier, a Frenchman who made mashed potatoes with dairy in the late 1700s and won a contest for them.
7. Cranberry Sauce
Cranberries are one of the only fruits native to America and were known to be regularly consumed by Native Americans, though we can’t say for sure that they ate them on the first Thanksgiving.
Still, the sweet cranberry sauce we know and love today probably didn’t materialize until the late 17th century, when Native American recipes of cranberries made with sugar and water were uncovered. The Washington Post says the first cranberry sauce recipe can be found in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. Canned cranberry sauce was invented by former lawyer, Marcus L. Urann, who quit his job to run a cranberry bog and ended up changing the future of the fruit.
8. Green Bean Casserole
Green beam casserole, a mix of canned soup, frozen green beans, and fried onions, is not everyone’s favorite, yet it remains a holiday staple. The dish was created in 1955 by Campbell’s employee Dorcas Reilly, who mixed Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup with the frozen veggie, then added fried onions for texture and color. It became immediately popular.
9. Apple Pie
A popular dessert option for Thanksgiving is an all-American apple pie, which, actually, isn’t quite as American as you think. Apples aren’t native to America, and they were brought here in the form of apple trees, planted by European settlers to claim land. According to Smithsonian, the earliest recipe recorded for apple pie was written in England in 1381 and included figs, raisins, pears, and saffron. Dutch apple pie recipes have dated back to 1514.
It’s possible that this became a Thanksgiving treat since apples are in their peak season during the fall.
10. Macaroni and Cheese
If you’re not serving macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving, you’re doing it wrong. Pasta and cheese casseroles were popular hundreds of years ago throughout Europe, so it’s a little unclear as to how mac and cheese itself came about. But according to Food52, in 1769, the book The Experienced English Housekeeper, by Elizabeth Raffald, included a recipe that mixed béchamel sauce with cheddar cheese to put over a noodle casserole with breadcrumbs and Parmesan.
Some say it was brought to America by colonial settlers, others say Thomas Jefferson made it popular after enjoying it overseas.
11. Pecan Pie
Another classic Thanksgiving dessert is pecan pie, which, according to Eater, is an American creation. Pecans are native to North America and the nuts were eaten by Native Americans. We don’t know when, for sure, the pie became a popular recipe, but the earliest recipes began appearing in Texas cookbooks in the 1870s and 1880s. And since pecan harvesting begins in September and goes through November, it makes sense that it became a food tied to Thanksgiving.
12. Turkey Gravy
It’s hard to say when, exactly, turkey gravy came into the picture, especially the homemade kind that is created from the drippings of a turkey. But we do know that packaged turkey gravy powder mixes got big in the 1950s, when, according to The Atlantic, convenience in the kitchen became a huge deal.
13. Candied Yams
Candied yams are similar to sweet potato casserole, but they don’t include a key ingredient: marshmallows. Also, while yams and sweet potatoes might taste similar, they are two different starches. While sweet potato casserole took off when marshmallows became a thing, candied yams were established well before that, in the 1880s.
American cookbooks like Boston Cooking School Cookbook from 1893 included recipes for glazed sweet potatoes, and George Washington Carver also had plenty of recipes for the popular dish, which later became the base for sweet potato casserole.
14. Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet potatoes aren’t just a side dish, they also make up a popular dessert. Sweet potato pie is often thought of as the Southern version of pumpkin pie. In the 16th century, after Europeans introduced pumpkin pie to people in West Africa, sweet potato pie took off: they made the pie with sweet potatoes and yams, which were native to Africa and easier to find. It soon became a staple with families across America.
This story published on Redbook.