If I asked you to think of a typical Thanksgiving meal, a very New England-influenced menu would come to mind: turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. But the actual food that appears on tables across the country for this uniquely North American holiday is surprisingly diverse. So, how—and why—do Thanksgiving menus vary across the U.S.?

Dispelling the Myth

Despite what your elementary school teacher may have told you, the first Thanksgiving didn’t actually happen the way you think it did, with the Pilgrims and indigenous people of Massachusetts gathering peacefully to feast together on the local bounty. While both groups did share meals and express gratitude for the food that sustained them, the Pilgrims regularly declared days of thanksgiving as a form of religious observance, which focused more on prayer than eating. In fact, some even involved fasting.

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It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday at the behest of Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Prior to that, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days from state to state (if it was celebrated at all). Once established nationally, people clung to the idea of a romanticized New England Thanksgiving feast, just like the one they thought was enjoyed by our nation’s forefathers. At the time, Americans were seeking a way to celebrate a shared history as a counterpoint to the growing political, social, and cultural divides. Coming together over a celebratory meal, it seems, was the answer.

According to Dr. Lucy Long, director of the Center for Food and Culture and adjunct professor at Bowling Green State University, Thanksgiving continued to be based on the New England paradigm well into the 1930s. After World War I, “people were looking for things to grab onto to represent togetherness,” she says. Just as they did during the Civil War, Americans focused on Thanksgiving as “the national meal” in an effort to create cultural and political unity. As such, certain dishes, especially turkey, have become iconic. Not only is it a symbol of abundance, says Long, but it’s also a very American meat that’s “grounded in geographic place.”

Going Beyond New England

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Yes, plenty of Americans do end up eating pretty much the same thing for Thanksgiving, regardless of where they live. But regional differences do exist. New Englanders are more likely to indulge in oyster stuffing and creamed onions. In the South, it’s not unusual to have a ham in addition to a turkey, or to serve mac and cheese alongside it. And in the Midwest, the green bean casserole still reigns supreme. As for the West Coast? Well, San Francisco-based author and food studies professor Dr. Erica J. Peters insists that Californians tend to associate Thanksgiving and Christmas with fresh crab, since the local Dungeness crab season historically begins in November or December.

The variations don’t stop there. Drop in on households along the border from Texas to California and you’ll most likely find tamales at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners according to Richard Foss, a consulting historian for the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. “Tamales are also a popular way to use leftovers and small bits of meat from the carving board.”

Using condiments to represent your region and ethnicity is pretty typical, according to Long. “For those who want to celebrate their Mexican heritage, it’s becoming more and more common to have a mole sauce (with turkey),” she says. Over the past few decades, pavochón—turkey prepared much the same way as lechón, or roast suckling pig—has become a Thanksgiving mainstay in Puerto Rico. Likewise, says Foss, “I have had masala-rubbed turkey at the home of a South Indian friend, and when I asked a friend who is Chinese, she said that in her family, the turkey was likely to be flanked with dishes from her family’s community in Guangdong.”

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“Families make their own Thanksgiving traditions,” says author and food historian Dr. Jessica Harris. “They come out of a lot of things. Not just race or ethnicity, but their geographic location and their family history. The classic example is, as African Americans, we have sweet potato pie, and other people have pumpkin pie. It’s as simple as that.”

Inevitably, wherever we celebrate, we all have our favorite dishes. Whether it’s your German Aunt’s side of sauerkraut she brings to serve alongside the turkey (which is actually a thing in Baltimore) or your grandmother’s secret apple pie only you know how to bake (sorry cousins!), we tend to cling to our traditions when it comes to figuring out our Thanksgiving menu. And yet, it’s worth remembering there’s nothing wrong with incorporating or even inventing some of your own MVPs. After all, who doesn’t like tamales?  

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