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Food Timeline> What does the average American eat for Thanksgiving?

If you ask the "average" American today what he eats for Thanksgiving he will likely answer turkey & stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes and pies (yes, plural!). Apple and pumpkin are typically the "must haves." It wasn't always that way. Our survey of Thanksgiving menus through time reveals an interesting mix of tradition, creativity and individual statement. It also details the evolution of the American diet. Food historians Kathleen Curtain and Sandra L. Oliver describe the Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving meal as an eclectic assortment of indigenous foods and European tradition.

There was no recorded menu for this most famous of all American dinners. Participant Edward Winslow reported in detail the types of foods present, but not how they were cooked and served in which order.

Indeed, few of us today would recognize the Pilgrim's original meal as a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. While turkey was on the table, it was not quite the commanding centerpiece we know today. Lobsters, venison, waterfowl, small game, cod, clams and oysters were more plentiful and better suited for feeding a large crowd. Stuffing birds with specially prepared breading was practiced in Europe from Medieval days forward.

There was no apple pie, fine white bread, or creamed pearl onions. Why? Old world fruits, vegetables, and grains needed to planted and mature. Our Pilgrim mothers substituted squash, maize meal, corn, beans, and local berries out of necessity rather than culinary intrigue. While America provided bounteous foods in every conceivable direction, early American cooks pined for the European foods they knew.

Mashed potatoes? Technically possible but socially unlikely. These New World tubers were transported to North America via Europe. In the Pilgrim's era potatoes were regarded as barely suitable for animals. It was not until the great famines of the 18th century that potatoes were consumed by humans on a regular basis. Recipes proliferated. Mashed potatoes, enriched with butter and cream became the staple of the laboring classes.

If there is one true thread in this culinary web it may be the American cranberry. This tart, versatile gift provided balance to meat (a la pork and applesauce, ham and pineapple), filling for pie and flavor for cakes. It also, unbeknownst to the Pilgrims, much needed Vitamin C. Nuts also played a special role, as they were associated from ancient times forward with long life, prosperity, and sharing one's bounty. When dinner was finished, the first Thanksgiving peacefully retreated into the pages of history. New Englanders continued to enjoy this holiday feast, but it was not yet a national day of celebration.

Fast forward to the 19th century. Why? Our newly industrialized nation teetered perilously toward Civil War. Social reformers, inspired by Victorian sentimentality, decided to revive Thanksgiving to promote national unity. Romanticized versions of the Pilgrim's dinner were loosely based on fact. They also updated the menu to reflect contemporary taste. Along with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry the "traditional" table now included white bread, apple pie, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and various fruit pies. As before, contemporary diners would find some items on 19th century Thanksgiving tables a little bizarre. Ham, cole slaw, peach pickles, oysters, chicken pie, tomato catsup, and stewed prunes were the norm.

The earliest print references describe Thanksgiving dinner menus grand New England feasts. By the mid 1850s, Ladies Aid Societies were furnishing meals to orphans and or unfortunates. Dinners (in the form of "care packages") were also supplied to Civil War soldiers. Family menus first surfaced in New England cookbooks. After Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation (1863), cookbooks published throughout the United States began suggesting holiday bills of fare.

As time and taste progressed, so did the foods gracing our Thanksgiving tables. Fancy scalloped potatoes joined their plain mashed brothers. Creamy butternut squash and apple soup became chic gourmet alternatives to boring consomme. Chocolate pudding pie, promoted as a health food in the early 20th century, became the choice dessert of many children. Tofurkey graces vegetarian tables while deep fried turkey (thank you, Martha Stewart) appeals to adventurous. Gravy is a skill not mastered by many; commercial versions, often fat-free, work just fine. Busy cooks opting for pre-made pie crust, refrigerator rolls, Stove Top Stuffing, instant potatoes, and frozen pie are just as appreciated by their families as those who spend days preparing the holiday feast. And then, of course? Some people prefer to eat out.

Food shortages, remote homesteads, war-time rationing, and infusion of new cuisines all had relatively little impact on our traditional Thanksgiving meal. We scrimped, saved, borrowed, and shared whatever we had to make this meal special. This is true wherever Americans happen to be on Thanksgiving. From Iraq to McMurdo to the International Space Station. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

Happy Holidays from the Food Timeline staff!

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Research conducted by Lynne Olver, editor The Food Timeline. About this site.
© Lynne Olver 2004
3 January 2015