Later today many of us will sit down to a hardy meal of traditional Thanksgiving foods like turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts and green bean casserole. We’ll top it off with whipped cream with a little pumpkin pie hidden underneath and then spend the rest of the weekend eating leftovers. At least that’s the way I figured it, so my husband doesn’t have to cook for a few days.
But what about that first Thanksgiving in 1621? Why were they celebrating and what was on the menu? The Pilgrims had arrived in the New World on Nov. 11 just as winter was setting in. It was December before they settled into their new home at Plymouth Harbor. There was little time to erect shelter and no time to grow any food in the new land to see them through the winter. These conditions took their toll. Of the 102 original colonists, only 51 survived the winter. Fortunately, the native Wampanoag people and a former British slave, Tisquantum, stepped in to help. We know Tisquantum as Squanto and through his translation and mediation they learned to hunt deer and beaver, plant squash and pumpkin, fish and forage. At harvest time, the colonists and the native people celebrated with a three-day feast we now call the first Thanksgiving.
What was served at that first Thanksgiving? Historical records state that the meal was made up of waterfowl, venison, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin and squash. Wild turkey was probably on the menu because they were common in the area. The turkey didn’t become the centerpiece of Thanksgiving until the mid-1800s. The berries probably included cranberries as they were also native to the region. The native Americans ate cranberries fresh, dried and formed into cakes to store and as a tea made from the leaves. Squash and pumpkins were also native to the Americas and were a staple of the native diet. In fact, the word “squash” comes from the New England-based Narragansett Native American word askutasquash.
Our Thanksgiving food traditions evolved as more immigrants arrived in North America and spread out across the country. The sweet potato, native to South and Central Americas, was picked up by the Africans brought here as slaves as a substitute for the true yams they had in Africa. A true yam is a very large, starchy and not sweet tuber that can grow to 5 feet long. Around the time of the Civil War, the sweet potato started making its way north and into the Thanksgiving feasts of the Yankees.
Some traditions are much more recent. Take the green bean casserole. It was created by Campbell Soup Co. Test Kitchen Manager Dorcas Reilly in 1955 as a marketing ploy. The original recipe called for green beans, French fried onions and a sauce of Campbell’s canned mushroom soup, milk and soy sauce. Over time, the recipe has been adapted to include water chestnuts, bacon, cheese and more. Check out the original recipe at campbells.com/kitchen/ recipes/classic-green- bean-casserole/.