The History of Thanksgiving Food and Its Traditions 

by Riley Fishman

The Thanksgiving holiday is always an exciting, joyous occasion filled with food, fun, family, and friends, but where did those traditions really come from? And are they really reminiscent of the Pilgrims first thanksgiving? Thanksgiving began in the 1800’s and was celebrated by many New England families, but was not formally introduced to the American people until 1863. The Lincoln administration created this holiday with the attempt to unify and “Americanize” the new influx of immigrants. Jewish, Italian, Chinese, and more, Americans embraced the story of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving, and our favorite food-filled Thursday was born! 

Though we now associate Thanksgiving with an abundance of turkey, stuffing and a variety of warm, spiced pies, some of the early foods that were likely enjoyed by the Pilgrims included lobster, seal, oysters and swan. Most historians believe that the meal consisted mainly of seafood, with other meats (like venison) as well. There is a good chance that Pilgrims also enjoyed a turkey at the fall-harvest table, as wild turkey was a common bird that was hunted and enjoyed during this time. Dishes were likely prepared with Native American spices and cooking methods. They would have had no oven, and on their Mayflower journey their sugar supply had dwindled so there were no cakes, pies, or other desserts. Though cranberries were present at this time, the lack of sugar would have made this fruit too tart to eat, but Native Americans likely used the bright, crimson berry as clothing dye. Corn was extremely likely to have been enjoyed at the first Thanksgiving gathering, probably in some form of corn porridge. Though there wouldn’t have been any pumpkin pie, Pilgrims were a fan of pumpkins. They would hollow them out, fill them with milk, and roast them until sweet and tender. 

The beginning of what we now know to be Thanksgiving may have had some different traditions around food and beverage. In the 1800s, apple cider, specifically alcoholic, would have been extremely popular. Apples were well produced in the temperate climate of New England, and many orchards produce their own cider. In fact, it was so popular that in 1767, Massachusetts colonists drank an estimated 35 gallons of cider per person! Another New England staple is oyster stuffing. Americans have been stuffing Thanksgiving birds with oysters for centuries, as well as cooking loaves, sauces, pies, soups and stews because this shellfish was so inexpensive. 

Sweet potato casserole is a fan favorite at every Thanksgiving meal, and its origin story is just as gourmet as the dish. Sweet potatoes had been enjoyed for centuries, but marshmallows were invented in the 1800s. French culinary artists paved the way for this delectable delicacy, who beat the roots of a marshmallow tree with egg whites and sugar to form an airy, chewy delight. 

Pumpkin pie is of course the most quintessential and classically American Thanksgiving dessert. This dish combines a Native American staple with the English tradition of pie making. Though this dessert was not popularized until the 1800’s, its place on the Turkey-day table was certainly solidified by 1869 when the (Hartford) Connecticut Courant referred to the pie as an “inevitable” Thanksgiving dish. This dish has of course been adapted as the years progressed, with vegan and gluten-free options available for those who choose to go plant-based this Thanksgiving. 

With the influx of Latin-American immigrants to the U.S. in years past, the introduction of tamales into the Thanksgiving menu may seem new, but this dish dates back to before the Pilgrim’s era. Tamales are a Mesoamerican dish that date back thousands of years. They are made of masa (a dough made from corn flour), typically filled with meats, veggies and cheese, wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves or plantain leaves, then steamed and unwrapped to be eaten. Though tamales may be an everyday food, they are eaten in Mexico on special occasions and holidays. They have a special place on many Mexican-Americans Christmas and Thanksgiving tables.  

To make various recipes mentioned in this article and more, visit the links below to create your own tasty, historic thanksgiving plate!

The Best Lobster Tail Recipe Ever!

Simple Roast Turkey Recipe – NYT Cooking

Naturally Sweetened Cranberry Sauce

Corn Porridge Recipe | Tyler Florence

Baked Pumpkin with Milk – Recipe |

Homemade Apple Cider (Easy Recipe) – Sally’s Baking Addiction

Oyster Stuffing Recipe | Food Network Kitchen

Best Sweet Potato Casserole with Homemade Marshmallow  

Vegan Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie

How To Make Tamales

Seven Native American Chefs Share Thanksgiving Recipes 

Joanne Chang’s Asian-American Thanksgiving Dinner | Food & Wine