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turkey and cranberry sauce

Ramona King

Traditional roast turkey with cranberry sauce


The real story behind classic Thanksgiving dishes

As we know now, Thanksgiving is all about the perfect balance of food: carbs, sides, meat and of course, beer, football and nap time. Some of the classic Thanksgiving dishes we eat today, though, weren’t around at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Potatoes, pumpkin pie and green bean casserole all came much, much later. A few foods have stuck with us since 1621 and have remained Thanksgiving classics we couldn't live without.

Thanksgiving in 1621 wasn’t even really Thanksgiving. It was actually an autumn harvest celebrating the Pilgrims’ arrival to the Plymouth region. Thanksgiving wasn’t even declared a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1863. There were only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, and both are very vague. While we don't know for sure what was on the table in 1621, food historians have a pretty good idea of what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag indulged on that evening. And we’ve come a long way since then.

We have to start with the turkey talk, y’all. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag did eat Turkey at the autumn harvest – it’s confirmed. That’s right, we eat turkey for a reason. Wild turkeys were common in the Plymouth region and eaten on a regular basis by both the Pilgrims and Wampanoag. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, created one of the very few documents of the famous meal of 1621. He noted that turkey was served to the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans that day.

The Pilgrims had their fair share of meat that evening. In addition to wild turkey, they enjoyed wildfowl and venison. In other words, the turkey wasn’t the star of the show back then. In fact, historians believe that duck, goose and wildfowl likely played a much bigger role in the meal than turkey. The Pilgrim chronicler, Edward Winslow, adds that the Wampanoag arrived to the very first Thanksgiving dinner with an offering of five deer for everyone to enjoy. Just like any Thanksgiving guest these days, the Wampanoag brought their fair share.

As you can tell, for the Pilgrims and Wampanoag it was all about the meats. While there may have been more seafood and venison at the dinner, turkey is the one that’s really stuck around and is still relatively untouched since 1621.
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Corn in the Plymouth region was incredibly abundant. And the Pilgrims and Wampanoag definitely served it at their meal, but it was in the form of grain rather than on the cob. They actually turned corn into cornmeal and then it was made into a porridge of sorts. It was thick, mushy and sweetened with molasses.
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It’s truly hard to imagine a Thanksgiving meal without some form of potatoes, but that’s exactly what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag had. A potato-less Thanksgiving, y’all. Potatoes didn’t make their way to Europe until 1570 and therefore they just missed the ride onto the Mayflower to North America. While it’s not certain, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag may have eaten Indian turnips and groundnuts instead. It makes you appreciate those soft and comforting mashed potatoes even more.  
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Sweet Potato Casserole
Even though sweet potato casserole didn’t get its start with the Pilgrims, it did turn 100 years old in 2017. That means the marshmallow-topped gooeyness that almost everyone eats on Thanksgiving has been around for an entire century.

Back in 1907, a company called Angelus Marshmallows, also the original makers of Cracker Jacks, introduced America to mass-produced marshmallows, except they weren’t really a hit. Ten years passed, and the company was still struggling to get marshmallows into the homes of Americans. The answer to this problem? Write a cookbook with recipes developed around marshmallows. In 1917, the company released their cookbook which included many dishes that we consider today to be classic, like hot chocolate with marshmallows on top and the sweet potato casserole. Happy belated birthday, sweet potato casserole!
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The Pilgrims and Wampanoag were surrounded by berries and, yes, that includes cranberries. They were indigenous to the region and because of this, the Wampanoag used them for food, as well as red dye. Don’t get excited though! Cranberry sauce wasn’t on the menu. The Pilgrims had nearly gone through their entire sugar supply by the fall of 1621 and boiling cranberries didn’t come until about 50 years later.

Only 26 percent of Americans make cranberry sauce from scratch, which means the rest of us opt for the canned stuff. Canned cranberry sauce made its debut in 1926 after a man named Marcus L. Urann decided to turn cranberries into a year-round product since normally they’re only harvested between mid-September and mid-November. That famous cranberry sauce log that we all correlate with Thanksgiving became available across the country in 1941.
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The stuffing that you and I enjoy on Thanksgiving was actually very different from what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag served and ate. Instead of a traditional (and delicious!) bread-based stuffing, they likely stuffed their wild turkeys with herbs and onions. While we’re not denying that herbs, onions and turkey is a great combination, we’re definitely happy that stuffing, or dressing, has evolved to a bread-based Thanksgiving necessity.
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Green Bean Casserole
If you break it down, canned soup, frozen green beans and fried onions don’t really sound all that appealing, even when combined together. But in the 1950’s this casserole was born, and we’ve never gone back. In 1955, a woman named Dorcas Reilly developed green bean casserole in the Campbell’s Soup Company kitchen with a little inspiration from Cream of Mushroom, green beans and fried onions. (Fried onions for texture and color, of course.) The dish was an instant hit – especially for the holidays since it’s an easy make-ahead. A fun fact? According to Campbell’s, 40 percent of the Cream of Mushroom soup sold in the US is strictly for making green bean casserole, y’all. That’s dedication.
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Pumpkin Pie
Without flour, butter or even an oven, making a pie crust was just impossible for the Pilgrims and Wampanoag. That doesn’t mean they were deprived of a delicious pumpkin dessert though. Early accounts of the first Thanksgiving notes that the Pilgrims would hollow out the gourd, fill it with milk, honey and spices to create a custard, and then roast the pumpkin whole. It doesn’t sound as good as pumpkin pie, but they had to work with what they had.

The pumpkin pie didn’t earn a seat at the Thanksgiving table until the early 18th century and was only popular in the New England region, meaning everyone else was seriously missing out. Don’t worry though, the rest of the country caught on by the mid-19th century. Canned pumpkin rolled out in 1929, making roasting and straining your pumpkin was officially old-school.
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Photo (spoonbread): Danielle Atkins
Photo (mashed potatoes): Cynthia Hoyt
Photo (sweet potatoes): Maura Friedman
Photos (cranberry sauce, green bean casserole): Ramona King
Photo (cornbread dressing): Courtesy of Peach Dish
Photo (pie): Catherine Baker

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Elisabeth Schrock is a contributing writer for Southern Kitchen. She's a graduate of Duquesne University and has traveled around the world chasing good food. Born and raised in Georgia, she vows that you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl. Oh, and she can never get enough of her dad’s homemade mashed potatoes.