A little over a week 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.
For some people, the joy of Thanksgiving dinner is the once-a-year indulgence. That’s what Jennifer Stanley says about stuffing: “It’s delicious, and I only eat it once a year!” Kaitlyn Betts feels the same way about cranberry sauce made from scratch. “That’s my favorite, and I only eat it once in a while,” she says.
Like Kaitlyn, many people enjoy those homemade dishes painstakingly made with love. Christie Matos-French’s favorite dish is gravy made from scratch. “This is the only time of year I want to put it on potatoes and meat,” she says. “I might have it with biscuits a couple of other times a year, but it’s a different thing entirely!”
For others, those classic Thanksgiving dishes just aren’t the same unless they come out of a can! Carolyn Price, who loves green bean casserole, says, “What’s weird is, one year I made it from scratch, and it wasn’t nearly as good as the one from the can!” One of Barbie Tallent’s favorites is canned cranberry sauce. “It reminds me of my mother and all the holiday meals she made. Cranberry sauce was the only thing she poured from a can, and it was like dessert!” she says. “I actually hate real, fresh cranberry sauce.”
Tiffany Hurrell enjoys green bean casserole “because it reminds me of home.” Kent Wheeless also loves green bean casserole. “My late grandmother always made it for Thanksgiving, and she made it the best,” he says. “I love it now because it always makes me think of my nana and our Thanksgiving Day family reunions. The dish is very warm, and it has a very cozy feeling to me, and that’s exactly how she was.”
Sweet potato casserole in all its forms seems to be a favorite amongst locals! Emily Taylor D’Elia says, “I always loved the yam patties piled with marshmallows and cinnamon and baked. Yum! A vegetable that tastes like dessert!” Ellee Wallace says it’s a must-have for her husband since they moved to the South: “So much butter and sugar it’s barely a vegetable!”
For some people, the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers! “My favorite is the day-after sandwich,” says Ellee Wallace. “Thick toast, mayo, cranberry, turkey, gravy, stuffing, and a thin layer of potatoes. I can enjoy it more since it’s already made!” Since the first Thanksgiving was a three-day celebration, the pilgrims most likely enjoyed leftovers too, throwing the remains of roasted birds into a pot to make a broth.
And of course, one of the best parts of Thanksgiving is not the meal but the time spent with family and friends. “I know it’s not a meal, but it is part of the meal,” says Holly Foster. “Family and friends, sitting around talking, laughing, and some in a food coma!”