Early Americans weren’t big on the holidays. Stuffy Puritans in the northeast, determined to “purify” the church, had quit making a celebration out of either Christmas or Easter. But “it’s one thing to give up Christmas,” says culinary historian Sandra Oliver, coauthor of Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie (Clarkson Potter, 2005). “It’s another thing to give up celebrating entirely, so the earliest settlers transferred the party to a harvest holiday.” The first one was held in 1621.
But as with many cultural phenomena, it didn’t really take off until it got a name. In 1841, historian Alexander Young—one of many casting about in the 19th century for stories of America’s glorious past—read about the Pilgrims’ big harvest party, imagined that it involved Indians and Pilgrims eating together all peaceful and friendly-like, and called it “The First Thanksgiving.” Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Then the newest Americans ran with it. The shift from harvest festival to fetishized Ameri-Hallmark Day happened in the 1890s, says Andrew Smith, author of The Turkey: An American Story (University of Illinois Press, 2006). “You had this huge influx of immigrants looking for new traditions, and we just didn’t have that many,” he says. “So we made up this origin myth, like Rome had Romulus and Remus, that was an easy story to put into textbooks, send home with the children, and help people assimilate.”
So it turns out that the Pilgrims didn’t sit around saying what they were “thankful for” with their Indian buddies. Or wear black. Or even call themselves Pilgrims. But they did eat string bean casserole, didn’t they? We rate Thanksgiving dishes according to the Pilgrim factor: how likely it is that an actual New England Puritan of 1621 would have had any idea what that thing was doing on the table. Ten is highly likely, zero unlikely indeed.
Pilgrim factor: 10
Yes, this oversized bird was most likely the centerpiece of the harvest festival that served as the basis for the Thanksgiving creators of the 1800s. A letter written by an attendee of the event says that the settlers shot wild fowl and Native American friends brought venison.
“Consistently, since the 1600s, turkey has been the cheapest meat that would feed the largest number of people,” says Smith. Turkeys are inexpensive to feed, and they mature in only seven months. In many parts of the country, grocery stores give them away if you buy $150 worth of food. In the 1920s, bowling alleys awarded one to anyone who bowled three strikes in a row. Turkey was the only agricultural product whose sales increased—in fact, they almost doubled—during the Depression.
A truly bizarre tradition, however, that ended in the late 1980s thanks to animal activists: the turkey drop. In 1945, the town of Yellville, Arkansas, decided to celebrate their Turkey Trot festival by dropping a live turkey off the courthouse roof. “Wild turkeys can fly about a mile,” says Smith. “Domestic turkeys, it’s more like ten feet.” Presumably, it was fun to see which force would win: the panicked flapping of an overweight bird or gravity. Soon, the town began dropping the confused birds out of a small plane, where they’d land (mostly) in trees, on rooftops, or in the outstretched arms of townspeople, to be kept as pets or meat. Proponents insist that most of the turkeys made it; the character Les Nessman was emotionally scarred by the practice, however, in a classic episode of the television show WKRP in Cincinnati.
Pilgrim factor: 8
“The settlers found cranberries growing wild in New England and certainly used them in cooking,” says Oliver. “More emphasis would have been put on them, though, after the middle of the 1800s, when they became a commercial crop.”
Pilgrim factor: 3
“Yams and sweet potatoes—most of what we call yams are varieties of sweet potatoes—were brought from Africa by the slaves,” says Smith. The sweet orange tuber, then, wouldn’t have hit the table till 1890 or so, well after the Civil War. “I mean, the South was pretty pissed off after that war—wouldn’t you be?” asks Oliver. “It took a while before they wanted to celebrate this damn Yankee holiday.” But when they did, we got sweet potato pie, pecan pie, and rice dishes.
Pilgrim factor: 9
“People have been stuffing anything hollow for the longest time,” says Oliver. “What you put in there depends on your circumstances.” It is likely the earliest settlers did this, but whether they used bread, giblets, celery, and the like is anyone’s guess.
String Bean Casserole
Pilgrim factor: 0
“Once you could freeze food, like string beans, you could put something distinctly out of season on the table,” says Oliver. “We take our frozen food for granted, but it was really a revelation for people to have almost-fresh food” in the 1930s. Campbell’s Soup took advantage of the frozen-food craze by developing this ubiquitous dish, which features cream of mushroom soup used as a sauce. “According to my coauthor’s research, 50 percent of packaged fried onion sales occur at Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, all because of that one recipe,” says Oliver.
Lost Classics: Oyster Stew, Plum Pudding, and Mincemeat Pie
Pilgrim factor: 5
Hardly anyone today starts off Thanksgiving with an oyster stew, which was a popular first course in the 19th century, when the holiday was formalized. You’ve probably never had plum pudding (note: Plums are raisins in this context—who knew!), but that, along with mincemeat pie, was a traditional Christmas dish that would have been co-opted for Thanksgiving use most likely by the settlers, and certainly by 19th-century revelers.
Pilgrim factor: 0
“It was logical for people to think Native Americans introduced us to popcorn,” says Smith, who also literally wrote the book on popcorn, Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (University of South Carolina Press, 1999). “American Indians gave corn to European colonists; popcorn is a type of corn; ergo, Indians must have given popcorn to colonists.” The idea was a hit with schoolteachers and children’s book authors. In Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, “Nobody but the Indians ever had popcorn, till after the Pilgrim Fathers came to America … they didn’t butter it or salt it, and it would be cold and tough after they had carried it around in a bag of skins.”
The problem is, there is no evidence that popcorn (a kind of corn) was grown in America before 1800. According to James W. Baker, vice president and chief historian for Plimoth Plantation, no trace of popcorn has been uncovered in regional archaeological excavations.