Ask the people around the table on Thursday about the history of Thanksgiving, and most will say something about the Pilgrims. Only a few might mention the Civil War.
This has been a big year for 150th anniversaries in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1. Gettysburg in early July. The Gettysburg Address just a few days ago. And coming up on Thursday, Thanksgiving.
True, settlers in English and Spanish colonies celebrated thanksgivings in their earliest years. And throughout the 1800s, New Englanders held such observances with their families and friends. But as a national commemoration, the holiday dates to 1863. That year, President Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving holiday, even as the Civil War was raging.
So why, then, do we associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims? In the late 1800s, with immigrants – Jews, Italians, Chinese, other outsiders – pouring in, America’s cultural leaders took two bits of shaky historic evidence from the early 1600s and embraced a story of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in an effort to Americanize an increasingly diverse population.
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The myth of our holiday’s Pilgrim origins took hold. But the dishes we eat at Thanksgiving? They capture other stories about the making of the American nation.
The bird on many Americans’ Thanksgiving tables today might be about the only thing that connects our national holiday with the romanticized meal in 1621 shared by Pilgrims and Indians and studied by so many generations of American schoolchildren.
William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation, tells us in his account of the colony’s early years that settlers’ diets that fall included wild turkey along with venison, cod, bass, waterfowl and corn. The turkeys might have been quite welcome to the newcomers in their harsh and unfamiliar new surroundings. Thanks to their Spanish imperial rivals, the English had been enjoying the meaty bird for decades. Spaniards had encountered turkeys in their early forays in the New World and had brought the fowl back home.
Turkey became popular across Western Europe and around the Mediterranean and was one of the first American foods to be widely eaten in Europe. So well established in England was the New World bird that English settlers brought domesticated turkeys to America in the colonies’ first years.
Although certain varieties of cranberry grow in parts of Europe, the turkey’s most popular dinner companion tells a story of New World cultural exchange. The fruit’s name is a legacy of 17th century German settlers in America. Called in medieval England “moss-berry” and other similar terms that allude to the fruit’s boggy habitat, English-speakers borrowed their German neighbors’ term “kranberee,” which refers to the long, cranelike stamens of the plant.
The fruit’s use draws on native food culture. Indigenous peoples had long raised and eaten the berries. A 1672 account of the colonies reported that “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.” Cranberry sauce has been paired with turkey, in particular, since at least the 18th century. Amelia Simmons, author of “American Cookery,” published in 1796, suggested serving roast turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry-sauce.”
For many, the Thanksgiving meal must include sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The happy marriage of the tuber with caramelized, gooey goodness owes itself to two developments of the 1800s. In the late part of the century, in the decades when the national Thanksgiving holiday took hold, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes – long eaten in the South – and incorporated them into the special meal.
In 1917, the Angelus Marshmallows company distributed a recipe booklet that taught Americans how they might use marshmallows. With that, the classic pairing had arrived.
The quintessential pie marries an indigenous American food already familiar to English colonists, thanks to the vegetable’s introduction to Europe in the 1500s, with an economical English culinary tradition of filling crust with meat, vegetable or fruit. Colonists cultivated pumpkin from their earliest years in the New World, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes from the 1600s.
The dessert did not often show up on Thanksgiving tables until the early 1800s, but by later in the century, pumpkin pies were so closely associated with the holiday that in 1869, the (Hartford) Connecticut Courant referred to the pie, along with turkey, as the “inevitable” Thanksgiving dishes.