History on the menu

The age-old roots of a few ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving dishes

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff


e tend to think of the foods in our Thanksgiving spread as the definition of “traditional” American fare — as intrinsic to our provincial identity as, well, apple pie. The historical reality, however, is that what we consider quintessential “American” dishes are actually the products of global trade and colonial invasion dating back as far as the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 CE. Meanwhile, “turkey and all the trimmings” share almost nothing in common with what the Pilgrims and their wary Wampanoag neighbors actually ate during the mythical “First Thanksgiving.”

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914. Courtesy image. Photos throughout the article are also courtesy images.

In This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, by historian David Silverman, the standard fare most often mentioned in the records includes corn — lots of corn, and many bushels of which the Pilgrims stole from the Wampanoags’ buried stockpiles — crabs, as evidenced by the appearance of their shells found in the Wampanoags’ summer homes, which the Pilgrims also looted while they were away in their winter abodes; and “blackfish,” or pilot whales, which a band of Pilgrims observed Wampanoags carving on the beach.

As for the actual “First Thanksgiving” menu, Silverman’s sources indicate that the celebrants probably feasted on corn; peas; fowl such as ducks, geese and probably some turkey; cod and bass; roasted or stewed venison; clams, mussels, oysters, lobsters, scallops, crab and eels; as well the Wampanoags’ nasamup, which was boiled cornmeal mingled with vegetables, fruit and meat.

What they didn’t have were potatoes. Being indigenous to South America and the Caribbean, the tuber hadn’t made its way that far north yet. There were also no pies. Lacking any milk-producing livestock, the Pilgrims 0f 1620-’21 had no access yet to butter, nor wheat flour nor sugar. If they had dessert with their meal, it was likely fruits like red and white grapes, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries and plums. Cornmeal fry cakes with fruit or honey were probably enjoyed as a treat — a dish the English learned from the Wampanoags.

“The people’s meals during these festivities bore only scant resemblance to the modern Thanksgiving spread,” according to Silverman.

Put simply: “[T]he legendary First Thanksgiving meal consisted largely of wild game and seafood.”

This also wasn’t a pious gathering, it was to feast and indulge in “recreations,” including militia drilling and target shooting. The Pilgrims were avid beer drinkers, and also imbibed “strong water” and maybe wine, resulting in records of drink-fueled contests of speed and strength. 

As Silverman writes: “Modern Americans tend to imagine the Pilgrims as stern and joyless. They could be both of these things, but not on this occasion.”

While that first “Thanksgiving” was indeed a time to “rejoice together” for having survived a brutal first winter and looking forward to a second winter with ample supplies — and it did include the attendance of Wampanoags — it’s a miracle the latter hadn’t already wiped out the Pilgrims after they’d been pilfering their stockpiles and breaking into their homes during the previous year.

In honor of our national day of giving thanks — which has more to do with the badgering of 19th-century Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who convinced Abraham Lincoln to establish Thanksgiving as a holiday amid the Civil War in 1863, than the mythology surrounding Pilgrims and Wampanoags — here are a few examples of how America’s definitive menu is really its most international and, in some cases, commercially inspired.

Yams and potatoes

As we all know (or should know, being good Idahoans), potatoes originated in South America as many as 10,000 years ago and were introduced to European tables by the Spanish in the early 16th century. Still, what we consider to be “potatoes” today (most all with white flesh) didn’t become a staple on Euro-North American tables until the early- to mid-1700s, when the most common method of preparation was what we’d recognized as mashed potatoes, with milk, butter, salt and cream.

Meanwhile, yams have a longer and even more fraught history in the American diet. The first true “yam” originated in West Africa, cultivated for who-knows-how-long with especial success in the region of what came to be known as the Bight of Benin. It was from that coastal location that nyam, nyami and nyambi (all Indigenous African terms meaning “to eat”) entered the European culinary experience — though the introduction came by way of the African slave trade dating back to the 16th century. 

According to an evocative history penned by Lex Pryor for theringer.com, “Slavers regarded the crop as they did the people who they aimed to make chattel: wretched and expendable.”

This first variety of yam was huge, hairy and had a different flavor than we’d identify today as “yammy.” 

Yet, a bit of linguistic transfer occurred when kidnapped and enslaved Africans encountered North American sweet potatoes — actually a different tuber long cultivated on the continent — and, upon finding them similar to their native foodstuff, used the word they knew best: “yam.” 

“‘[Y]am,’ a term that was spawned as a tumor of European exploitation, spread from the tuber of West Africa to the sweet potato of the Americas in conjunction with the birth and expansion of the slave trade,” Pryor wrote. “And its usage continued long past enslavement for so many years and so many lives that Americans white and Black not only forgot where the word came from, but that it came from anywhere at all.”

No matter what you call it, the crop was considered “plantation food” until, as Pryor has it, early-20th century marketers decided to elevate its place at the table and, by the 1950s, the yam (now referred to interchangeably with the sweet potato) had been “certified Americana.” Yet its journey to North American Thanksgiving feasts is so intricately tied to the slave trade that slaving voyages would be timed around the tuber’s harvest cycle — a cheap, nutritious, hardy and native staple to keep captured Africans alive on their long journey into servitude across the Atlantic from their homes.

(Read Pryor’s piece “The Deep and Twisted Roots of the American Yam” at theringer.com.)

‘Candied’ foods

The notion of smothering vegetables (especially root vegetables) in sugary substances is actually pretty old. Historians agree that at least as early as 1597 — following the introduction of North American sweet potatoes to European palates earlier in the century — English cooking instructions for them included the use of wine or boiled prunes to amp up the tuber’s inherent sweetness. 

Sugar as a commodity took Europe by storm in the late-Middle Ages and early-Renaissance. King Henry VIII had a notorious sweet tooth, keeping his sugar supply under armed guard and employing a personal confectioner who would form sugar into elaborate shapes (including plates, on which further sugary dishes would be served for a decadent, tooth-destroying dessert).

Glazing carrots and yams, or sweet potatoes, with honey or various varieties of sugar is time-honored, though the innovation of adding marshmallows to the latter tubers is much newer.

According to Boston Magazine, that twist on the recipe came in 1917, when the advertising arm of Angelus Marshmallow hired Bostonian cook Janet McKenzie Hill to invent some new uses for their product. She’s the one responsible both for “sweet potato casserole,” as well as the convention of putting marshmallows in your hot chocolate. (However, Boston Magazine notes, a version of candied yams appeared in an 1896 cookbook.) 

That’s not to say the dish is universally loved. Southerners, who had been eating sweet potatoes for a much longer span of time, thought the marshmallow topping was literally over the top. Northerners, meanwhile, were attracted by the innovation of industrially puffed sugar on their veggies, and so quickly adopted the dish.


Thanksgiving’s signature sauce is unique in that it spans the northern Atlantic World, and has probably the longest legitimate pedigree of any dish we still consume to celebrate the holiday. The bitter little berry is endemic to both Europe and North America. Indigenous peoples in North America grew, gathered and consumed cranberries, as did medieval Britons, who referred to them as “moss-berries,” owing to their prevalence in bogs. According to The Washington Post, one record from 1672 indicated, “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.”

The word “cranberry” actually has Germanic roots, corrupted from “kranberee,” in reference to the plant’s long stamens, which curve like the neck of a crane. English colonists in the 1600s adopted that name from the first waves of German migrants to North America, most of whom came as indentured servants hoping to fulfill their labor obligations in exchange for farmland.

Cranberries coupled with turkey — the most American of wild fowl, which Benjamin Franklin famously preferred over the bald eagle as the United States’ national bird — almost certainly predated the Revolutionary War, with one standard recipe appearing in a 1796 cookbook that called for roasting turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry-sauce.” Interestingly, this same cookbook suggested serving turkey alongside pickled mangoes, which had become trendy in the late-18th century with their importation to North America from India. Globalization for the win.


What’s a feast without something to wash it down? Beer, of course, is almost prehistorically old. Wine is likewise integral to the human experience. But cider — especially made from fermented apples — has its own long history, and one that is much more specifically tied to Europe, Europeans’ invasion of North America, and its subsequent association with Euro-Americans’ founding traditions and earliest celebrations.

According to the Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, Julius Caesar wrote in 55 BCE of the Celtic Britons drinking a fermented beverage made from crabapples. Likewise, peoples living in the northern regions of the Iberian Peninsula (a.k.a., present-day Spain and Portugal) were drinking sidra before the Common Era.

How fermented apple cider came to North America has to do with that long British tradition of cider drinking. First the Celts, but, more recently, following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The French invaders subsequently introduced a number of apple varieties to England, spurring a boom in hard cider production, which had been (and continues to be) a highly popular beverage in the western-most areas of France, such as Brittany, and throughout the British Isles.

Historians, including at Washington State, note that the Plymouth, Mass. colonists of 1620 planted apple trees within their first decade in North America, immediately commencing to turn their yield into a boozy beverage that for more than 200 years would be the commonest tipple among Europeans on the continent. (According to an article from The Washington Post, residents of the Massachusetts Colony consumed about 35 gallons of cider per person. That’s probably low. For more, read The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition by historian W.J. Rorabaugh.) 

That all changed with the upswing in beer consumption in the mid-19th century of German and Irish immigrants, as well as the baleful conquest of whiskey, which helped fuel the Temperance Movement and later Prohibition in the early-20th century. 

Still, cider remains rooted in Americans’ minds as a traditional autumnal tipple, and, for that, we can be thankful to the ancient Celts and Medieval Normans.

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