History

The secret origins of classic Thanksgiving dishes

Thanksgiving: the most delicious holiday. As the end of November draws nearer, Americans start having dreams of roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and all the other trimmings we know and love. But how did all these recipes become synonymous with Thanksgiving? Punch another hole in your belt and learn about the secret origins of these classic Thanksgiving dishes.

Pumpkin pie

Slice of pumpkin pie with whipped topping plated on a rustic wooden table
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While the official menu of the First Thanksgiving is surrounded in mystery, Native Americans had been making their version of pumpkin pie for centuries. They would hollow out a pumpkin, fill it with honey and spices, and place it in the hot ashes of a fire to bake. No one is sure if that version of pumpkin pie was served at the original Thanksgiving, but it’s possible.

Considered the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” Sarah Josepha Hale was instrumental in creating the national holiday. Once Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863, after much persistence from Hale, she published a cookbook that was heavily inspired by the First Thanksgiving to promote the new holiday. Pumpkin pie, as we know it today, was one of the featured recipes. It’s been a holiday staple ever since.

Cranberry sauce

Bowl of cranberry sauce surrounded by scattered cranberries on a wooden table
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Cranberries were common in Massachusetts in the 17th century, so they might have made an appearance at the original feast. Native Americans regularly used them as a sweet snack and as a dye. The early pilgrims didn’t have any sugar left from their long voyage, so cranberry sauce in the modern sense would have been impossible. They most likely ate the cranberries whole or used them as a garnish on another dish.

Cranberry sauce, as we know it, is another product of Hale’s influence. It became a Thanksgiving staple when it was published in one of Hale’s cookbooks.

Potatoes

Bowl of mashed potatoes with butter and chives served on a rustic wooden table
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Potatoes make up at least two side dishes at every Thanksgiving dinner. There are the delicious sweet potatoes, often topped with marshmallows, and the beloved mashed potatoes — with extra butter and salt, if you please (and you should). Unfortunately, neither of these dishes could have possibly been served at the First Thanksgiving since the potato had not yet made its way to North America.

Hannah Glasse is credited with the original recipe for mashed potatoes as we know them today. In the 1700s, her cookbook was widely renowned and owned by elites in both Britain and America. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all owned copies. With the success of her book, mashed potatoes became a staple in American cooking and eventually made their way to the Thanksgiving table.

Turkey

Roasted turkey served on a tray for an elaborate Thanksgiving feast
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While turkey is usually the main dish of any Thanksgiving feast, it probably wasn’t for the Pilgrims. Their main course most likely consisted of deer and seafood.

Turkey gained popularity in America because of its practicality. Although turkeys do produce delicious eggs, the cost of production is too great. Compared to chickens, turkeys take up more space, eat more, take longer to mature to the point of laying eggs, and don’t lay eggs as often. However, the meat from one bird is enough to feed an entire family for days, and they’re easy to hunt and domesticate. That made them a popular choice for large gatherings.

Abraham Lincoln might also have influenced the turkey tradition. When he made Thanksgiving a national holiday, he had the first unofficial Thanksgiving dinner featuring one of his favorite foods: roast turkey. He also started the presidential tradition of pardoning one lucky turkey every year before the holidays.

Green bean casserole

Traditional green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and crispy fried onions
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Yet another important Thanksgiving classic that couldn’t have been anywhere near the original Thanksgiving table, green bean casserole is a product of modern times.

Campbell’s soup didn’t start going into cans until 1897. In 1955, Dorcas Reilly was working in the Campbell’s test kitchen. She combined six ingredients to create the very first green bean casserole, although she called it green bean bake. The recipe’s popularity exploded due to the inexpensive ingredients, minimal prep time, simplicity, and how well it freezes. Not only did it become a staple for Thanksgiving, it became a staple for American life. Even today, 40 percent of Campbell’s cream of mushroom sales are attributed to families making the beloved casserole.