The Story Behind the Most Classic Thanksgiving Foods

Serve up a side of history this holiday with these fascinating origin stories.

Roasted whole turkey on a platter with a cheesecake behind it against a blue backgroundTaste of Home

If you ask me, Thanksgiving is the tastiest holiday of the year. From roasted turkey and gravy to green bean casserole and pumpkin pie, the traditional Thanksgiving menu is full of delectable dishes. But what do we know about how each food came to be served on our plates? Surely the colonists and Wampanoag tribes didn’t dig into a marshmallow-topped casserole back in 1621. Follow along to uncover the tasty origins of our most time-honored Thanksgiving dishes.

 
Whole cooked turkey on a platter beside a gravy boat and other sidesTaste of Home

Turkey

The bird synonymous with Thanksgiving is one of the few modern-day staples that was served at the first feast. Turkeys were abundant in the Massachusetts Bay area where the event took place. However, back then, wild turkeys were much taller and leaner than the domesticated breed we know today. Additionally, the turkey wasn’t the star of the show. Wild hens, venison and an abundance of fresh seafood were served on the first Thanksgiving, too.

You can check out our favorite turkey recipes, here.

Pumpkin pie with one slice missing and two more cut and ready to eatTaste of Home

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin and other winter squash were common crops in Plymouth Colony around the time of the first Thanksgiving, and there’s a good chance they were served at the three-day feast. But this doesn’t mean flaky crusts filled with sweetened, pulverized pumpkin pulp. Since there wasn’t an abundance of wheat flour, butter or sugar in the colony, people would hollow out gourd fruits, fill them with a thick custard of milk, spices and honey, and then bake or roast them in embers.

Looking for more pumpkin recipes? We’ve got you covered.

Bowl of cranberry sauce with a spoon dug into itTaste of Home

Cranberry Sauce

The first Thanksgiving table didn’t boast heaping bowls of the sweet, jellied cranberry sauce we know and love today, but cranberries definitely made an appearance. Commonly eaten fresh or dried by the Wampanoag tribes, cranberries, along with grapes, gooseberries, plums and other fruits, were served fresh-picked. It didn’t take long for cranberry sauce to become associated with turkey, though. Boiling cranberries in sugared water to create a thick sauce came into fashion about 50 years after the first Thanksgiving. Try our tested and perfected version, here.

Green bean casserole in a 13x9 dishPhoto: Taste of Home

Green Bean Casserole

You can thank Campbell’s Soup for the green bean casserole we identify with Thanksgiving today. While dishes consisting of veggies, cream and a crunchy topping date back much further, the familiar mix of cream of mushroom soup, canned green beans and fried onions comes from a recipe developed by the soup company in the 1950s. It took off in popularity due to its combination of on-hand ingredients, affordability and heartiness. In my opinion, it’s a Thanksgiving must.

Get our green bean casserole recipe, here.

Large white plate filled with buttery mashed potatoesPhoto: Taste of Home

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are a necessity at the contemporary holiday table, so it’s hard to believe they weren’t served up at the first Thanksgiving. Sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, and white potatoes, from South America, hadn’t even made it to North America yet—and they wouldn’t become a popular crop here or in Europe for at least another 100 years. Make up for lost time with our recipe for creamy, dreamy mashed potatoes.

 
Sweet potato casserole loaded with toasted mini marshmallowsTaste of Home

Sweet Potato Casserole

Believe it or not, this ubiquitous dish is less than 100 years old. Though the modern marshmallow was invented in France in the 1800s, the puffy sweets took their time to cross the Atlantic, and didn’t really take off in the U.S. until the 1920s, during the Prohibition era, when sweet dishes surged in popularity. The now-classic casserole made its first appearance just a few years prior; since that time, it has become a staple on many families’ Thanksgiving tables. (It also helps that sweet potatoes’ harvest season runs from October to December.)

Regardless of how they came about, we’re more than happy to share these recipes with friends and family as we give thanks this holiday season. Try all of our Thanksgiving favorites, here.

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Caroline Stanko
As Editor, Caroline writes and edits all things food-related and helps produce videos for Taste of Home. When she’s not at her desk, you can probably find Caroline cooking up a feast, planning her next trip abroad or daydreaming about her golden retriever, Mac.