Can’t imagine the fourth Thursday of November without a big slice of pumpkin pie? Here’s how it, and five other Thanksgiving foods, ended up on your plate.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz
Updated October 21, 2020
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Thanksgiving food history - the history of traditional Thanksgiving foods (feast spread)
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For most, Thanksgiving is pretty much synonymous with pumpkin pie and pilgrims. But with Thanksgiving 2020 just around the corner, maybe it’s time to learn a little more about the history of our favorite Thanksgiving foods. (You could even share some fun food facts with your Thanksgiving wishes this November.)

For instance: Pumpkin pies weren’t actually common on American tables until the turn of the 19th century, and Thanksgiving as the holiday we know and love today wasn’t even established until 1863—more than two centuries after the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts. Curious to know more of the surprising and delicious history behind all the dishes on your modern-day table? Here’s what we found out about Thanksgiving food history.

Thanksgiving food history: Timeline of Thanksgiving Foods in History
Credit: graphic by onethread design

1621

After surviving their first brutal winter and successfully establishing a food supply, the remaining members of the Plymouth colony held a three-day harvest feast alongside the native Wampanoag Indians. Wild turkey was very likely a component—though not the centerpiece—of a menu that also included oysters, venison, duck, and eel.

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1792

Early settlers might have used herbs or crushed nuts to dress their birds, but our now-traditional bread-based stuffing—spiked with butter, salt, pork, and herbs like sage and marjoram—didn’t appear in American cookbooks, like Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, until the late 18th century.

1800s

Despite its all-American reputation, pumpkin pie was popularized by the British upper classes during the 16th and 17th centuries. But those pies, made from sliced squash and apple sealed in a thick double-pastry shell, bore little resemblance to the creamy, custardy, cinnamon-and-nutmeg-spiced versions that Yankee homemakers passionately embraced during the 1800s—and that we still adore today.

1917

To modern tastes, the marriage of sticky-sweet sweet potatoes and marshmallow crust might seem like a kitschy remnant of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era—but in fact, this dish’s origins reach back even further. Marshmallows were a novelty around the turn of the 20th century and were aggressively promoted by their makers, including the Angelus Company (now the Campfire brand)—whose 1917 corporate recipe pamphlet featured the first known recipe for mashed sweet potatoes with a marshmallow topping.

1941

Though a staple of the New England larder for centuries, until more than 100 years ago, cranberries could only be bought fresh, and even then, only for two months out of the year. But in 1912, a savvy Yankee lawyer named Marcus L. Urann changed the cranberry industry—and the landscape of the Thanksgiving table—forever. Starting with a single bog, Urann went on to found the company that’s today known around the world as Ocean Spray. Their most beloved (or belittled) product—the log of “jellied” cranberry sauce that keeps its shape even when shaken from the can—first hit the market several decades later in 1941 and is gobbled up by the gallon (about 5,062,500 gallons, to be precise) each holiday season.

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1955

Holiday hot dishes became wildly popular in post-war America, but few have had the staying power of green bean casserole. Created in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economics staff member at the Campbell’s Soup Company, the recipe brings together a trio of classic mid-century convenience foods: canned onions, canned green beans, and, of course, Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup. In 2002, Reilly donated her original hand-written recipe card to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, where it keeps company with such illustrious neighbors as the light bulb and the phonograph.

Sources: The Food Timeline, Plimoth Plantation, American’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, Saveur.com, Campbell’s, Campfire, Smithsonianmag.com, The Story Behind the Dish: Classic American Foods, The Historic American Cookbook Project