The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving

iStock
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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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!

17 Delicious Facts About Peeps

Getty Images
Getty Images

You know whether you prefer chicks to bunnies, fresh to stale, or plain to chocolate-covered. But there’s a lot you may not know about Peeps, everyone’s favorite (non-chocolate) Easter candy.

1. It used to take 27 hours to make a Peep.

A candy Peep being made
Getty Images

That was in 1953, when Sam Born acquired the Rodda Candy Company and its line of marshmallow chicks. Back then, each chick was handmade with a pastry tube. Just Born quickly set about automating the process, so that it now takes just six minutes to make a Peep.

2. An average of 5.5 million Peeps are made every day.

Peeps candies being made
Getty Images

All of them at the Just Born factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In one year, the company makes enough peeps to circle the earth—twice!

3. Yellow chicks are the original Peep, and still the favorite.

Boxes of yellow chick Peeps
Getty Images

Yellow bunnies are the second most popular color/shape combination. Pink is the second best-selling color.

4. The recipe has stayed pretty much the same.

Cooking up a batch of Peeps
Getty Images

The recipe begins with a boiling batch of granulated sugar, liquid sugar, and corn syrup, to which gelatin and vanilla extract are later added. 

5. The equipment has also (mostly) stayed the same.

Peeps candies being made
Getty Images

Since Just Born turned Peeps-making into an automated process, the chicks have been carefully formed by a top-secret machine known as The Depositor. Created by Sam Born’s son, Bob, The Depositor could manufacture six rows of five Peeps apiece in a fraction of the time it took workers to form them by hand. And that same machine that Bob built has been keeping the Peeps flowing ever since. Until rather recently …

In 2014, the company announced that it was planning to renovate its manufacturing plant, including The Depositor. “It’s a little sad,” vice president of sales and marketing Matthew Pye told Candy Industry Magazine at the time. “Bob Born made it from scratch in 1954 and it allowed us to distribute and grow the brand nationally." 

6. The updated equipment means new Peeps innovations could be coming.

Making Peeps at the Just Born factory
Getty Images

“The investment in our marshmallow making process will allow for more efficiency, more consistency, improved quality, and additional innovation capabilities,” co-CEO Ross Born told Candy Industry magazine about the new depositor, which will be able to produce a wider variety of Peeps in all sizes. “The [old] Peeps line did one thing and one thing very well—cranking out chicks day in and day out. Five clusters, just in different colors,” Born said.

7. Peeps used to have wings.

They were clipped in 1955, two years after the first marshmallow chicks hatched, to give the candy a sleeker, more “modern” look.

8. The eyes are the final touch.

A close up of a yellow chick Peep
Getty Images

The final flourish for all of these squishy balls of sweetness is adding the eyes, which are made of carnauba—a non-toxic edible wax (that is also found in some shoe polishes and car waxes, plus many other candies).

9. Peeps may be destructible, but their eyes are not.

Making Peeps at the Just Born factory
Getty Images

In 1999, a pair of scientists at Emory University—dubbed “Peeps Investigators”—decided to test the theory that Peeps are an indestructible food. In addition to a microwave, the pair tested the candy’s vulnerability to tap water, boiling water, acetone, and sulfuric acid (they survived them all). When they upped the ante with some Phenol, the only things that didn’t disappear were the eyes. 

10. They really are everyone's favorite non-chocolate Easter candy.

For more than 20 years now, no other non-chocolate Easter candy has been able to compete with the power of Peeps. With more than 1.5 billion of them consumed each spring, Peeps have topped the list of most popular Easter treats for more than two decades.

11. There are sugar-free Peeps.

Counterintuitive, we know. But in 2007, the first line of sugar-free Peeps hit store shelves.

12. There are also chocolate-covered Peeps.

Chocolate-covered Peeps hit the market in 2010. Today there’s a full line of them for every occasion.

13. Peeps come in a variety of flavors.

Color and shape (i.e. yellow chick) are no longer the only ways to categorize a Peep. They now come in an array of flavors, including fruit punch, sour watermelon, lemon sherbet, blueberry, and pancakes and syrup.

14. Peeps lip balm is a thing.

Yep.

15. On New Year's Eve, a giant Peep is dropped in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


PEEPS®

The drop is done with a traditional chick that flashes different colors at midnight.

16. Believe it or not, Peeps are not Just Born's best-selling brand.

That honor belongs to Mike and Ike. (Sorry, Peepsters.)

17. They're a boon to a creativity.

Blue chick Peeps
Getty Images

All over the country, Peeps have become the preferred media for a number of highly anticipated annual art contests. (You can check out some of the coolest creations from Westminster, Maryland's PEEPshow here.)

Updated for 2019.

10 Amazing Pieces of Peeps Art

“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council
“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Some people paint, some scrapbook, and others create Game of Thrones-inspired dragon sculptures made of 5000 marshmallow Peeps. Candy art may seem like an unusual form of craftsmanship, but it’s more common than you might expect in the lead-up to Easter, when organizations around the country host Peeps art contests.

The aforementioned dragon, as well as the artworks pictured below, were all submitted to the “PEEPshow” contest—a fundraiser for the Carroll County Arts Council in Westminster, Maryland. According to event organizers, the event became the first exhibition of Peeps art when it debuted 12 years ago.

Keep scrolling to see some of the best Peeps sculptures from recent years (2017-2019), and visit the Art Council’s website to see all of this year's participants. (As of Friday afternoon, a Warhol-inspired artwork of "Marilyn Peeproe" appears to be in the lead.)

A space-themed Peeps display
“First Peeps in Space” by International Delight / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A samurai sculpture
"Sugar Samurai" by Tristar Martial Arts / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

The rabbit from Alice in Wonderland
“I’m Late, I’m Late (for the PEEPshow)” by Vivian Davis / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A caterpillar sculpture
“The Very Hungry Caterpeeper” by Lia Finch and M / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A sculpture inspired by a painting
“Peep with the Pearl Earring” by Sandy Oxx / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council


“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A Belle sculpture
“Beauty and the Peep” by Candace Birger, Westminster Cake Studio / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Fish sculpture
“The Rainbow Fish” by Jen, Justin, Connor, and Jacob Myers / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A Gumby sculpture
“Just Gumby” by Sydney Blacksten / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A sculpture of a monster
“Percy the Purple Peeple Eater” by the Koontz Family / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER