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We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. It was told to us countless times in grade school as we sat at our desks and drew hand turkeys with crayons, and topped them with little pilgrim hats and feathers. However, what's more interesting than Thanksgiving’s sordid past is the history surrounding the dishes that make up our November feast. This post-harvest celebration is stuffed with more traditions than the turkey itself. Did you ever stop to ask yourself where all these delectable dishes came from, aside from the oven? Have you pondered the origin of your pumpkin pie as you piled it high with whipped cream? Well, even if you didn’t you’re going to know by the end of this article. Come the holiday you can be the savviest person at the table as you drizzle information over everyone’s meal in lieu of gravy. Just kidding, don’t skip the gravy.
These Turkeys Were Made for Walking
If we are going to expound upon the origins of some of Thanksgivings most popular dishes we may as well start with the main course; the turkey. Brined, fried, baked, or tofu, just about everyone has this 11 million year old bird at the center of their Thanksgiving table. It is Turkey Day after all. But, why is it the main course you ask? The answer is simpler than you would expect. Essentially it bakes down to convenience. Wild turkeys are native to North America. When Europeans first made contact with the Americas it is estimated that some 10 million turkeys were roaming the land. As settlers began raising their own livestock, cows and goats were kept for their milk and not often eaten. Chickens were kept for their eggs and also not often eaten. Pigs were the primary meat source of colonial Americans but if you’re throwing a party you don’t want to eat what you already eat on a regular basis. Enter the turkey, delicious and not really good for much else than eating, and one bird could easily feed an entire family.
In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. By this time novelized images of the turkey as the main course had spread nationwide. The toughest part of meeting the growing demand for turkeys on this day was getting the turkeys to the people. Before refrigerated trains and trucks the only way to get them there was to take them for a walk. A very slow, long walk over several hundred miles. Vermont turkeys were marched to Boston, Kentucky and Tennessee turkeys were marked to Richmond. Turkeys dont really have a driving sense of urgency by nature, or maybe they knew they were on their death march, whatever the case, the average pace of a turkey walk was about one mile per hour. To make matters worse turkeys aren't very bright. As the sun sets, they will roost for the night in bushes and trees. The problem with this is that often times the turkeys would confuse an overcast sky, or especially shady woods with night fall and would prematurely settle down to roost. Once they decided they were done for the day “nothing would induce them to continue the march to the slaughtering pens.” Drovers would often travel miles out of their way to avoid densely shaded woods in hopes of keeping their turkeys moving. “Turkey Trots”, as they were called in Texas, remained the norm up until the 1930’s when commercialized farming and more efficient means of transportation arose.
Pumpion to Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkins have been cultivated in Central America since 5500 BC. The first known mention of Pumpkins in Europe dates back to 1536. The squash quickly took its place in English baking culture, but you're not very likely to find the custard based pumpkin pie we serve at Thanksgiving on an English dinner table. Pumpion pie, was made with pumpkins and apples, baked with rosemary, thyme, marjoram ( a type of mint), cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Early colonists brought pumpkins back with them on the Mayflower, but a lack of ovens and flower meant that it would still be some time until pumpkin pie as we know it became a popular dish. In 1796 American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, was published. It was the first cookbook to be published here and it contains two recipes for pumpkin pie, one very similar to what we serve up today.
Before it was nationalized, the celebration of Thanksgiving was very regional, and mostly celebrated in New England. Pumpkin pie was in integral part of the holiday in New England by the turn of the 18th century. It was such an important dish, that in 1705 the town of Colchester Connecticut actually postponed Thanksgiving because there was not enough molasses to make pumpkin pie. Clearly, Connecticut is a state with their priorities in order.
Is a turkey even a turkey if it's not stuffed or is it just fowl? Humans have been stuffing their birds and game for cooking since the Romans. One of the first written recipes known to man is from the 1st century AD by Apicus, a Roman, and it's a recipe that includes game stuffed with a variety of herbs and spices. Stuffing seems to be popular mostly because no one likes to eat dry meat. Head south of the Mason Dixon line and you won't find stuffing made with bread cubes, but rather dressing made with cornbread. The reason for this is because the crassness of the term "stuffing" offending southern Victorian sensibilities, and it has remained dressing ever since. Go North and you’ll find that your stuffing includes chestnuts, or oysters. In San Francisco a popular recipe for stuffing includes sourdough bread, chicken sausage, and granny smith apples. Here in PA, we serve “filling” with our Thanksgiving turkey. However you like your stuffing, dressing, or filling, just remember to make one batch for the bird and one for the people, otherwise you’ll have your dinner guests yelling “fowl!” over more than just the football game.
In Conclusion, Happy Turkey Day!
Mankind has been holding some form of harvest celebration for hundreds of years. As a result, from sea to shining sea, no two Thanksgiving spreads look exactly the same. Regardless of the foods you prefer on your plate, make sure to always help your host or hostess with the dishes. They'll be thankful for it!
Written and Researched by Victoria Buckwash