The Phoenix Fire

History of the Thanksgiving Menu

Chungtai Tian, Feature Reporter

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Picture a Thanksgiving meal. A big roasted turkey. Stuffing, potatoes, and maybe some cranberry sauce, too. And to finish off the big meal, a delicious pumpkin pie. While this is the modern Thanksgiving dinner that comes to mind today, it stems from a long history of meals, beginning with the meal that the Pilgrims had with the Wampanoag people at the First Thanksgiving.

The meal consumed at the First Thanksgiving was very different from a contemporary Thanksgiving meal. While it was said that Pilgrims and ate “Wildfowl,” most likely in the form of a goose, duck, swan, or even pigeon, the main course of the meal was venison, which was available in large quantities.

Another standard Thanksgiving food, stuffing, was also unlikely to have been a part of the First Thanksgiving. However, it is possible that the birds eaten may have been paired with onions and other herbs.

In addition to the wildfowl, deer, eels, and shellfish, such as clams, mussels, and lobsters, were another large part of their First Thanksgiving meal. Historical documents reveal that the colonists and Wampanoag people dried fish and smoked shellfish in preparation for their meal.

Other items most Americans love and regard as staples, such as potatoes and cranberry sauce, were not at that first meal either. Both white potatoes, which were from South Africa, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had not yet been introduced to North America. Meanwhile, cranberry sauce was not developed until 50 years later, when an Englishman came up with the idea  of making a cranberry sauce to eat with meat.

Finally, the sweetest part of the Thanksgiving meal, the dessert,was extremely different back then. Instead of pumpkin pie, the settlers enjoyed meat pies. At the time, the colonists didn’t have the butter and wheat flour used to make pies, despite the having pumpkins steadily available.

From what information is available, the Thanksgiving menu back then was extremely different from the one we have now. However, this begs another question. How did the menu change over time to become the meal we know today? One answer lies in a women’s magazine popular in the 1800’s, Godey’s Lady Book, written by Sarah Josepha Hale, a strong petitioner for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. In this magazine, she created many “Thanksgiving Recipes”, which were later adopted by the public, creating the many longstanding and conventional recipes we know and love today. 

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History of the Thanksgiving Menu