When the Pilgrims first decided to immigrate to the “New World,” it was the ultimate travel expedition for Europeans of the time. After a harsh 10 weeks at sea, the Mayflower, with 102 passengers and 30 crew, dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1620.
Anyone who has spent a winter in New England knows this was not a good time to set up camp on Cape Cod, but the Pilgrims had no other choice. When the Mayflower left Plymouth the following April, she sailed with half her crew and left behind just 52 Pilgrims.
Popular Graphic Arts, The landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620 LCCN2002707741, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
With the help of the Wampanoag (the local Native American people), the remaining colonists learned how to grow food, hunt wildlife, and survive in this new land. Thanksgiving Day in the United States is the day we associate with the harvest festivals the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoag at the end of their first year in the New World.
So, of course, the Pilgrims set out the traditional Thanksgiving foods at their first harvest feast. Turkey with stuffing, sweet potatoes (with the little marshmallow on top), green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie to finish the meal! Yeah, maybe not.
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What Foods Were Really Eaten At The First Thanksgiving?
The Wampanoag had shared their knowledge of the bounties of the land with the Pilgrims. But that did not include sweet potatoes or even regular potatoes. These items did not make their way to the colonies
The colony was still in its infancy and had few buildings and no fancy kitchens. Cooking was done outside over a fire pit. There was no flour or butter, so there wasn’t a way to bake bread or a pie.
Veggies, Fruits, Nuts, And Grains Were On The Thanksgiving Table
Instead, along with the native peoples, the Pilgrims grew corn, beans, and squash, all native plants to the area. The corn that was produced is not what we have now. This corn (what we now call Indian corn) was called flint as the outer shell of each kernel was pretty hard.
So no corn-on-the-cob. Instead, the kernels were removed from the cob and made into corn porridge. This porridge may have been sweetened with molasses. It might bear a slight resemblance to the corn pudding you sometimes see today.
The squash, which may have included pumpkins, and beans, were often used in a hearty stew. There are records of colonists removing the seeds from the squash, filling the shell with a custard made from dairy, honey, and eggs, and baking this in the fire. Early pumpkin pie?
Fruits like blueberries, plums, grapes, and gooseberries were probably served. Cranberries were prevalent in the area, but due to their tartness (there was no sugar) only used at this time as a natural dye.
It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that cranberries were finally mixed with a sweetener and made into a sauce for meats.
Fish And Game Were Abundant For The First Thanksgiving
Yay, so the big Harvest Feast had turkey! Hold up, maybe not. According to the journal of colonist William Bradford, there were wild turkeys in the Plymouth area.
But the best account of the harvest feast we have was written by colonist Edward Winslow in his book “Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.” In this first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving, there are no specific mentions of turkeys.
However, we do know that “wildfowl” were gathered. While generally assumed to mean geese or ducks, wildfowl could have easily been turkeys.
In abundance were shellfish, clams, oysters, mussels, and the big daddy of the all, lobster. Yes, today, lobster is a delicacy that costs big bucks, but in 1621, it was an everyday food.
Lastly, we know that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, brought five deer as a gift to the celebration. So venison was definitely on the menu.
When Did Thanksgiving Become A National Holiday?
After that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, it took a while for another feast day to be set. Initially, thanksgiving days were declared by local governors or parish priests. George Washington announced several “days of thanksgiving” while General of the Continental Army.
When Washington became the first President of the United States, he proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789. However, the many presidents who followed ignored the tradition until President Lincoln.
After the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to heal the schism created by the war and cement an American identity. Lincoln’s efforts were not fully embraced as the Southern states saw Thanksgiving as a Yankee Holiday and chose not to participate.
For about the next 70 years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Then in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to move the holiday up by one week, hoping that allowing more time for Christmas shopping would help the Post-Depression economy.
Roosevelt’s plan was chided and renamed “Franksgiving” by his political opponents. In 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution establishing the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. Roosevelt reluctantly signed the bill into law.
Fast Forward To Today’s Traditional Thanksgiving Foods
As the United States grew as a country, the foods on our Thanksgiving table also evolved. One thing that has remained stable on most families’ Thanksgiving tables is the turkey.
Here are the top 10 things we think of today as our favorite traditional Thanksgiving dishes. If you see a link along the way, that will take you to my favorite recipe for the dish.
1 – In First Place On The List – Turkey!
Nealy, every household will sit down sometime on that last Thursday in November at a dinner table where this big bird is the centerpiece of the meal. Usually, it’s a Roast Turkey. But the bird could just as easily be deep-fried or barbequed.
With your main course being the Thanksgiving Turkey pretty much set, what else is on the menu?
2 – Is It Stuffing Or Dressing At Your House?
The biggest reason most turkeys are roasted is so the family can have the stuffing. Yes, I know some call this side dish dressing. But in our house, it was always a simple bread stuffing (a recipe handed down from my Great-Grandmother to Grandmother, Mom, and me). And always cooked inside the turkey.
3 – Mashed Potatoes, You’ve Gotta Have’ Em!
The lowly potato has been grown in the New World since 8000 BCE! But it took until the 1700s to finally gain popularity among the Europeans settling in New England at the time. Since then, we’ve been hooked on the lovely spud.
At our Thanksgiving, we like to serve buttery mashed potatoes. However, equally deserving of a place on the holiday table are potatoes au gratin and scalloped potatoes. But because we need more vessels for the turkey gravy, mashed potatoes are the preferred potato on the Thanksgiving menu. This leads us to …
4 – Gravy – That Golden Brown Sauce That Covers Your Thanksgiving Plate
GRAVY! How could something so simple, meat drippings, thickener, and broth, also be so divisive? Divisive? Yes. Do you put the giblets in your gravy or not? Corn starch or flour for the thickener? How do you even make gravy if you deep fry your turkey?
Even in the same family, there is always an argument about the gravy. I prefer the simple drippings, flour, and broth method. My husband’s side of the family are true giblet lovers. We usually end up with a bit of both. And yet somehow never enough.
5 – Gotta Have Sweet Potatoes. Or Is It Yams?
Is there a difference between a yam and a sweet potato? Most grocery stores offer two similar-looking tubers — some labeled as yams and some as sweet potatoes. But those tubers are probably not true yams. Yams are native to Africa and Asia; you usually need to look for them at a specialty store.
Most of what you find at the grocery store by either of these names are just varieties of sweet potatoes. This tuber is native to the “new world.” Sweet Potatoes are almost always on the table. Often in the guise of a sweet potato casserole with mini marshmallows gracing the top browned to perfection. Or in a side dish many call “Candied Yams.” And if you are from the south, you most likely will have a sweet potato pie for dessert.
6 – Cranberry Sauce – Love It Or Hate It, You Have To Have It On Your Thanksgiving Menu
An indigenous fruit, wild cranberries, was harvested by the native American tribes in the North East section of the United States. These berries were used by the people for dye and medicines. Cranberries were used as food, typically pounded into a mixture of dried deer meat and fat tallow, forming a sort of “energy bar” of the day. But the tartness of the fruit meant it was not a favorite.
Once the Pilgrims had a consistent source of sweetening (i.e., honey from honey bees brought over in 1622), the fruit started to grow on folks. It took a while, but by 1912 cranberry sauce was being offered to consumers, and canned cranberry sauce finally hit the market.
And that is how cranberry sauce finally ends up on our Thanksgiving table; chilled, pushed out of the can, and placed in a bowl. Nice, but I like my cranberry sauce a bit fresher and spicier! Making your own cranberry sauce with my easy recipe only takes about 30 minutes. Try it sometime. I almost guarantee you will love it.
7 – Green Bean Casserole
In 1955 Dorcas Reilly, an employee of the Campbell Soup Company, created the first green bean casserole recipe. A simple dish made with green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and crispy fried onions.
Campbell’s placed the recipe on the back of their Cream of Mushroom Soup can. Masterful marketing makes its mark, and green bean casserole becomes one of the classic Thanksgiving recipes.
What’s great about this dish is you can make it a day or so before Thanksgiving. On the day of the Feast, add the crispy fried onions and heat up the casserole.
8 – Mac and Cheese?
Seeing Mac and Cheese as a Traditional Thanksgiving food was a bit of a surprise to me. But I’ve learned over the years there are many variations of the Thanksgiving meal around our big country.
More common in the Southeast portion of the United States, mac and cheese is often served as part of a holiday meal. Makes sense to me; there is nothing wrong with a bit of cheesy goodness!
9 – Dinner Rolls
Parker House rolls, butter flake rolls, homemade biscuits, and all the other freshly baked bread products you desire all have their place on the table during the holidays. You can never have too many carbs!
10 – You Must Have Pumpkin Pie For Dessert
Yes, everyone makes a pumpkin pie for dessert. And while pie is a consistent theme on Thanksgiving, you can also have apple pie, pecan pie, cherry pie, or sweet potato pie. The question is, will that pie be served with whipped cream or ice cream?
Now You Know All About Traditional Thanksgiving Foods
Are you the host of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in your family? If so, how many of the 10 most popular foods are on your menu? Is there a traditional food I missed? Let me know your long-held Thanksgiving feast menu. Maybe I’ll be adding new foods for my next Holiday season.
FAQs – Traditional Thanksgiving Foods
What can I make 2 days before Thanksgiving?
A lot of cooking goes on for a big holiday feast like Thanksgiving. Getting a head start on some side dishes is a great way to make the big day a little easier.
If you are making your own cranberry sauce, this can be done up to a week ahead.
Green bean casserole or any other vegetable can be prepped up to the last-minute cooking steps a day or two before the party.
Mac and Cheese is a dish that reheats wonderfully, so making this in advance is a fantastic time saver.
Pies can be made a couple of days before the big meal, freeing up room in the oven for baking turkey.
Remember, after the turkey is done roasting, it will need to set for about 30 minutes before you carve. This is when you can use the oven to heat all the side dishes you made in advance!
What Can You Have For Thanksgiving Besides Turkey?
Not a fan of turkey? Many Americans aren’t, even though there it is at every Thanksgiving dinner. But you don’t have to cook what Mom, Grandma, and Great Grandma cooked. Want a ham, have a ham. Prime Rib is also a great sub but a bit pricey if you serve a large crowd.
You can even harken back to the old days and have a huge seafood platter. Lobster, clams, oysters. Load up the table and chow down.
Why Do We Eat Thanksgiving Dinner So Early?
The best answer for why Thanksgiving dinner is eaten so early lies in history. “Dinner” was once the main (read biggest) meal of the day, served around one or two in the afternoon. The evening meal was called “supper.” This was a light meal, or even just a snack, eaten around sundown.
Growing up, we always had Sunday dinner at our Grandparent’s house. Sunday Dinner was always in the middle of the afternoon. The rest of the week, with school and work, we ate dinner in the evening, but not on Sunday. It may have been the same in your family.
The holidays followed the Sunday dinner tradition; we ate dinner in the afternoon. Typically at my grandmother’s house at 2 p.m., then sit down for a 3 p.m. dinner.
When it came time to host our own Thanksgiving, most of us didn’t think twice about using the same schedule. Why change what worked for so many years?
There is no rule, and if you are doing your Thanksgiving or maybe a “Friendsgiving,” you can choose any time you want for dinner. Be mindful that many people travel a bit of a distance to celebrate. An earlier dinner accommodates traveling guests and lets them return home at a reasonable hour.