The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving

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iStock

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

Ninja’s Hot & Cold Brewed System Is the Only Coffee Maker You’ll Ever Need

Amazon
Amazon

Update: The glass-carafe version of the Ninja Hot & Cold Brewed System is currently on sale for $99 (a 50 percent discount) on Amazon and Walmart. That's the cheapest price we've ever seen, so grab it while you can. The thermal-carafe version is on sale on Amazon for $168, a 27 percent discount.

For people who just want a cup of joe to help them get out the door in the morning, the French presses, Chemexes, Aeropresses, Moka pots, and other specialized devices that coffee aficionados swear by probably seem more overwhelming than appealing. Ditto the fancy cappuccino machines at local cafes. That’s where Ninja’s new Hot & Cold Brewed System comes in: It was created to give coffee addicts a myriad of options with minimal fuss, not to mention minimal equipment. And it makes tea, too!

“Coffeehouses are known for having an endless selection, but current at-home brewers haven't given users the vast variety of choice we thought possible, and certainly not all in one product," Mark Rosenzweig, CEO of SharkNinja, said in a press release. "The Ninja Hot & Cold Brewed System changes the category entirely. This innovative system is more than just a machine you use in the morning; it's your all-day brewing partner.”

The Hot & Cold Brewed System comes with two baskets: one for coffee and one for tea. It knows what you're making to make based on the basket you insert, and the available options for that basket will light up. The machine allows the user to make six different sizes of coffee or tea, from a single cup all the way up to a full 50-ounce (10-cup) carafe.

And of course, as the name suggests, the system can make both hot and iced beverages. For coffee, it has five brew options: classic, rich, over ice, cold brew, and specialty (a concentrated brew for milky drinks like cappuccinos). If you’re making tea, you can choose between hot and cold brews optimized for herbal, black, oolong, white, or green tea.

When you select an over ice or cold brew, the machine automatically doubles the strength of your beverage so it doesn't get overly diluted by the ice cubes in the carafe. Even better, the Ninja can make cold brew in just 10 to 15 minutes, whereas other systems and methods typically take hours. (Hot coffee is brewed at 205°F, while the cold brew is made at 101°F.) And the system has a hot and cold frother that folds into the side so you can make barista-level lattes, too.

These bells and whistles sound impressive on paper, but how do they perform in real life? Ninja sent me Hot & Cold Brewed System to test for myself.

Ease of Use

Though it might look like something developed by NASA, the Hot & Cold Brewed System is designed to easily work with the twist of a dial and the push of a button, and it delivers. From loading in the correct amount of grounds with the system’s “smart scoop” to picking what type of brew you’d like, it’s simple enough to use even while bleary-eyed in the morning. It’s also easy to schedule a delayed brew so you can do the rest of your morning routine while your coffee brews. (Here’s the only drawback I can think of about this machine: When it starts brewing, it’s kind of noisy—loud enough to make my cats jump. It’s not a dealbreaker, but if you live in a small apartment and plan to brew coffee so that it’s ready right when you wake up, it might be something to consider.)

The system even tells you when it needs to be descaled. The “clean” button will light up, at which point you simply fill the water reservoir with descaling solution and water and press the clean button. A countdown lets you know how much longer the clean cycle will last.

Taste and Flavor

I swapped out an old, cheap coffee maker for the Hot & Cold Brewed System, and the difference was immediately noticeable. Whether hot or cold, the coffee made by the H&CBS was a better, smoother cup of joe. That’s due to what Ninja has dubbed Thermal Flavor Extraction automated brewing technology, which, according to a press release, “knows the precise temperatures, correct bloom times, and proper levels of saturation for every possible beverage combination to ensure a great taste every time.”

Whatever tech they use, it works. The coffee I make in this machine is consistently tasty. The rich brew setting works exactly as advertised, too, providing a richer, bolder flavor than the classic brew.

Features and Accessories

One of the best things about the H&CBS is the fact that it cuts down on waste significantly. Unlike other machines, it doesn't require any plastic pods or paper filters. Instead, it comes with two permanent filters, one for coffee and one for tea.

And the cold brew function is a game changer if you prefer iced coffee to hot. Not only does it brew quickly, but it eliminates the messy cleanup that comes with making cold brew yourself.

Typically priced at $230 for the thermal carafe version (or $200 for the glass carafe), the Hot & Cold Brewed System is significantly more expensive than a simpler drip coffee machine. But if you’re a cold brew addict looking to treat yourself, it’s worth it. Consider springing for the slightly more expensive thermal carafe model, which will keep your java hot or cold for hours. (I’ve left ice in it overnight and found cubes the next morning.)

You can get the Hot & Cold Brewed System on Amazon, Walmart, Macy's, or directly on Ninja’s website starting at $160.

Fuel Your Cold Brew Obsession With This Elegant, Efficient Coffee Maker

Brrrewer
Brrrewer

The sun is scorching, the days are endless, and the gentle clinking of ice cubes in a glass of cold brew coffee sounds like chimes at the gates of heaven itself.

A beverage so divine deserves to be created by a machine to match, right? Meet Brrrewer, a coffee maker that will provide you with the smoothest, sweetest, richest cold brew coffee you’ve ever had—and it’ll do it in just four hours.

Brrrewer uses the cold drip method to brew coffee in which coffee grounds are suspended between two microfilter membranes. Water is poured over the top membrane, then slowly filters through the coffee grounds and drips out from the bottom membrane. The top membrane ensures that the water is evenly distributed among the coffee grounds, and the bottom membrane allows only the water-turned-coffee to fall into the carafe below, without any of the gritty residue. (That gritty residue is often a result of the full immersion method, which is popular among those with French presses; basically, you just steep your coffee grounds in cold water for 12 to 24 hours, strain out the grounds, and drink.)

The carafe is encased in a second layer of glass, providing thermal insulation and keeping your coffee cold for longer than a regular glass bottle or pitcher. And you can cross “coffee filters” off your shopping list—the microfilter membranes do that job already.

The Italy-based team at Essense designed Brrrewer with elegance and minimalism in mind, so it won’t throw off the aesthetic groove of your kitchen. In fact, it might enhance it. Also, it’s manufactured from a combination of borosilicate glass and BPA-free Tritan plastic; in other words, it’s extra-sturdy and environmentally friendly.

Mixologist Francesco Corona, five-time Italian “Coffee in Good Spirits” champion and world championship finalist, worked with Essense to develop special cocktail recipes for Brrrewer, which you can find in the paperback book, available on its own for $17 or with Brrrewer (the book and coffee maker combo is $78). Order Brrrewer by itself for $67 here, or see other purchase options from Kickstarter.

If four hours is more than you’re willing to wait for cold brew, check out Ninja’s Hot & Cold Brewed System, which can make it in about 15 minutes.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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