The History of Thanksgiving Foods Will Totally Change the Way You Look at Your Holiday Table

Here’s how pumpkin pie—and five other foods—ended up on your Thanksgiving plate.

Thanksgiving food history - the history of traditional Thanksgiving foods (feast spread)
Photo: Getty Images

For most, Thanksgiving is pretty much synonymous with pumpkin pie and pilgrims. But maybe it's time to learn a little more about the history of our favorite Thanksgiving foods. The next time you gather with family around the turkey and trimmings, share some fun food facts along with your Thanksgiving wishes.

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

Thanksgiving food history: Timeline of Thanksgiving Foods in History
graphic by onethread design
01 of 06


Holiday Turkey Dinner

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. (The notion that their relationship was entirely friendly has since been debunked, though it’s true that the Wampanoag tribe was looking for ways to manage and benefit from the forces of colonization.) Wild turkey was very likely a component—though not the centerpiece—of a menu that also included oysters, venison, duck, and eel.

02 of 06


cornbread stuffing on plate with turkey and cranberry sauce

Early settlers might have used herbs or crushed nuts to dress their birds. Still, our 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.

03 of 06


slice of pumpkin pie with pumpkins and homemade whipped cream

BHG / Ana Cadena

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.

04 of 06


baked sweet potato casserole with breadcrumb topping on a plate
Chef John

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. 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). The company’s 1917 corporate recipe pamphlet featured the first known recipe for mashed sweet potatoes with a marshmallow topping.

05 of 06


Thanksgiving canned cranberry sauce
Brent Hofacker / Alamy Stock Photo

Cranberries have been a staple of the New England larder for centuries. But it wasn’t until more than 100 years ago that they could 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.

06 of 06


close up view of a Green Bean Casserole with Frozen Green Beans in a white baking dish on a yellow kitchen towel

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.

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