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A Short History of Our Favorite Thanksgiving Foods

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Thanksgiving is a truly American of holiday. For many, it is a day to gather with family and friends in gratitude for the abundance we enjoy – both as individuals and as a nation. The real attraction at Thanksgiving, of course, is the food!

While each family has their favorite dishes depending on their heritage, certain iconic dishes have become staples of the turkey day meal. Have you ever wondered why, though?  Here’s are some fun facts about some traditional Thanksgiving foods.


When pilgrims from England celebrated their first autumnal feast in 1621 — later coined “the first Thanksgiving,” venison was likely the main course, not turkey. It was provided by the Mashpee Wampanoag — an indigenous tribe who lived in America for roughly 10,000 years before the Mayflower landed. By the 1700s, wild turkeys were becoming more popular and in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an official holiday and roast turkey was nationally recognized as the Thanksgiving bird. 


Cornbread is older than our country. Settlers from Europe learned recipes and techniques for cooking with maize(or corn) from various Native American tribes, began to experiment on their own, and soon came up with cornbread. Cornbread became part of the culture of the American South, typically baked in a cast iron skillet. Sometimes it was fried to make corn pone and hoe cakes.

Stuffing (or is it Dressing?)

For the non-foodies among you, “dressing” is something served on the side and “stuffing” is cooked inside the bird. The Pilgrims were more likely to have served rice than a dressing made of bread or corn. The first record of stuffing as a Thanksgiving staple is in 1836, and the rest is history. The ingredients in stuffing and dressing depend on where you were raised and can include a wide variety of ingredients including cornbread, white bread, herbs, sausage, oysters, dried fruits, nuts and more.

Pumpkin Pie

Native American Indians enjoyed pumpkin for hundreds of years before the Europeans landed, eating it baked, boiled, roasted and dried. Early settlers learned from them and used pumpkin in variety of recipes. The origin of pumpkin pie is thought to have occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, filled it with milk, spices and honey and baked it over a dying fire.

Sweet Potatoes

Columbus likely encountered sweet potatoes in his voyages to the West Indies and brought them to Spain. Native Americans were known to have grown sweet potato extensively by the 1700s, and it became a food staple of the South by the 1800s. Sarah Hale, an advocate for making Thanksgiving a national holiday, included a recipe for sweet potato pie in a magazine article she wrote in 1887. George Washington Carver is credited with much of the increased interest in sweet potatoes at that time. Candied sweet potatoes became popular in the early 1900s, and marshmallows were added in 1917 (as a way to sell marshmallows of course!).

Pecan Pie

Pecans were harvested by Native Americans from the South to as far North as Iowa. Texans take credit for early pecan pie recipes and by the early 1900s, pecan pies were popping up around the country. Since pecans are harvested in the fall, the timing was perfect for Thanksgiving recipes. The delicious dessert really took off when the makers of Karo syrup began printing a pecan pie recipe on the label.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are native to the United States, and Native Americans were known to eat them regularly. Reports of Native American cranberry sauce recipes — made simply with sugar, cranberries and water — date back to the mid-to-late 17th century, and by the 18th century, cranberry sauce was a known accompaniment to game meats like turkey. The first acknowledgment of a cranberry sauce recipe can be found in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery.