Thanksgiving menus in modern America are not at all what they used to be. Americans have not always indulged in the dishes such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie that they have come to think of as traditional Thanksgiving fare today. A look back at the evolution of the Thanksgiving menu over the years reveals that the traditional holiday feast has changed a great deal from its beginnings as a multiple day celebration in seventeenth century Massachusetts.
The first Thanksgiving likely did include turkey as a main feature of the meal. However it is equally likely that the fowl referred to in reference to the first Thanksgiving may have been duck or goose as both are known to be plentiful for hunting at the end of the traditional harvest season in the Northeastern United States. Additionally, if in fact, the first Thanksgiving did include turkey, the birds certainly bore little resemblance to the robust, perfectly proportioned birds of today. Rather they were likely small wild birds consisting largely of dark meat. Meat selections at the first Thanksgiving dinner may also have included venison and a variety of seafood.. The first Thanksgiving could have included stuffing, but it would have consisted mainly of herbs, onions or oats, rather than the bread-laden version of today. Likewise, the original Thanksgiving feast may have featured cranberries and pumpkin, but not in the sugar sweetened forms currently enjoyed. Unlike a modern Thanksgiving meal, the first feast was extremely unlikely to have included either white or sweet potatoes in any form as neither had migrated to that region of the world as of the seventeenth century. Further, the meal would have included many more varieties of vegetables than the traditional Thanksgiving meal of today. The roots of the modern Thanksgiving menu are reflected in the dishes likely served at the original celebration, but are certainly no longer what they used to be.
In the years between the first Thanksgiving and our modern celebration, there have been a number of other foods that have come and gone as part of the holiday meal.
During the eighteenth century wild turkey rose in popularity as a Thanksgiving main dish. Meats such as rabbit, veal, pigeon and seafood were also popular Thanksgiving fare at the time. Such dishes as creamed onions and mincemeat pie, a pie consisting of chopped meat, spices and dried fruit, began to make their Thanksgiving appearances during this time as well but are rarely seen on the modern-day Thanksgiving table.
The nineteenth century saw an increase in the focus on desserts as part of the Thanksgiving meal. Perhaps the wider availability of refined sugar during this time was responsible for the establishment of pumpkin and apple pies as Thanksgiving menu staples. However, these years also meant that the Thanksgiving table may have included desserts such as sweet breads, puddings and cakes that are quite dissimilar from the desserts traditionally associated with Thanksgiving in modern times. The nineteenth century also marked the entrance of the potato as a staple on Thanksgiving menus.
From its crude beginnings to its modern-day gluttonous gastric glory, the Thanksgiving menu has certainly evolved over time. Given some of the foods that have come and gone during this evolution, many are sure to be thankful this Thanksgiving that the modern Thanksgiving menu is not what it used to be.
By Michele Wessel