Thanksgiving History

The first Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Colony in 1621 started one of America’s favorite holidays to share gratitude and appreciate the important people in our lives. Almost 400 years separate the original Thanksgiving meal form our modern day Thanksgiving, so the holiday and all of its traditions have evolved over the years due to various cultural influences and family customs.

The Turkey

The Thanksgiving bird is symbolic to the holiday and provides the incredible aroma that swirls out of ovens across America for hours on Thanksgiving morning. Actually, there is no proof that this iconic bird was a part of the first Thanksgiving meal. The turkey did not gain its place as the star of the feast until after President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national Holiday in 1863, almost 250 years later. Turkeys were available back in 1621, however as documented in the primary source description of the events from the fall of 1621, Edward Winslow writes “the men brought back large amounts of fowl”. Historians believe this refers to ducks, geese or other small birds.

The Stuffing

Good news: Stuffing, a savory favorite of many was actually a part of the very first Thanksgiving! Back in the 1600’s, wild fowl was caught for dinner and stuffed with either oats, fish, or a combination of both, then cooked. The fish and oats stuffing has definitely evolved since then, but the concept of saturating another dish in the natural flavors of the bird while is cooks is as traditional as it gets.

The Cranberry Sauce

In 1621, this sweet addition simply wasn’t an option. Sugar wasn’t an available ingredient used in cooking yet, but documentation states that there was a bitter cranberry sauce at the meal to help moisten the fowl. With a pinch of sugar, this fruity addition has evolved. Some families prefer the jellied, canned cranberry sauce, while others like their cranberries freshly boiled to perfection. Regardless of the way you prefer your cranberry sauce, it is the combination of sweet and sour that ties all of the Thanksgiving flavors together.

The Pie

As mentioned, added sugar was not available, but neither was butter or shortening to make pastries at that very first Thanksgiving meal. Pumpkin, a sweet squash, was available, yet it is unclear how it was incorporated. It was, however, a very common and accessible food that brought sweetness to meals. Modern American families usually top off their meal with traditional pies such as apple, pumpkin or pecan, and pumpkin pie is definitely the most traditional of the pies served.

 The meal shared at the first Thanksgiving has evolved tremendously, but the original tradition of sharing a feast around a large table has remained the same. The turkey was adopted as the national bird because it can serve a large crowd. As you gather around your table this Thanksgiving, think about the evolution of the traditional Thanksgiving foods as a way to unite the people you love along with people all over the nation!


Photo Credit: Samantha Gitlin

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