Food Stories: How Turkey Came to Thanksgiving

This post is our first venture into longform food history, and we’re so pleased to welcome Suzanne Kahn, a history grad student and author of the food blog, An Overdetermined Life. Just in time for turkey day, Suzanne’s exploring the history of our most American meals, to determine why we eat what we eat at Thanksgiving, and just what our turkey day traditions mean.

At my boyfriend’s family’s Thanksgiving the dish everyone waits for all year is not turkey, not stuffing, not cranberry sauce. It’s clam pie.

If for some reason clam pie entices you, here’s a little more about it. Clam pie is not a pie. It is literally a pound of butter mixed with canned clams, their juices, garlic, breadcrumbs, and mozzarella. After a quick broil, the melty mess is piled onto crackers and eaten as a pre-turkey snack

My family has its own shellfish-based Thanksgiving tradition. We fill up on raw oysters before turkey. Learning to shuck them is an oddly gendered right of passage for the men who participate in our Thanksgiving. (Editor’s note: we’re into it, Suzanne! We’re serving salmon, too.)

Seafood aside, how did everyone end up sitting down for a meal of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pie anyway? And, what about the more idiosyncratic traditions like clam pie and raw oysters? How did those get added to our tables?

Below, we’re covering the essential components of a Thanksgiving dinner so that you can stump everyone with holiday food trivia this Thursday. So even if you don’t decide to give clam pie a whirl, you can still know why you, and everyone else in the country, are buying cranberries this week.

**How Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, and Pie Came to Our Thanksgiving Tables**

A Little History

Let’s start with the basics. We all know the Puritans-and-Indians-sitting-down-to-their-first-Thanksgiving feast story. From there, it was a while before Thanksgiving moved from a customary observance to an actual fixed, national holiday in the nineteenth century.

In 1846, Sarah Joseph Hale, a women’s magazine editor, began her campaign to get Thanksgiving turned into a holiday. She wrote annually to the President and to every governor in the country asking that they declare the last Thursday in November a national day of thanks.

This was just before the Civil War, and Hale believed that such a holiday would unite the country.

Unfortunately for Hale and for peacetime, it was not until the middle of the Civil War that her crusade was successful and Thanksgiving created. In 1863, Lincoln declared the first Thanksgiving in order to celebrate recent Northern victories. This was hardly the unifying moment Hale had hoped for, but, in the long run, her inclination was right. Today, our Thanksgiving dinner table is full of food traditions that bring together North and South.

The Turkey

Here’s what Hale said should be on the Thanksgiving table: Beef, pork, mutton, goose, chicken, and turkey. In other words, meat with a side of more meat.

So how did the turkey—arguably one of the less delicious meats around—win?  I put that question to a few Thanksgiving experts. Sheri Castle, an expert on Southern food history, explained that wild turkeys were plentiful for hunting throughout early America. More importantly, of all the fowl you could hunt, turkey offered the most meat for a feast.  Sandra Oliver, co-author of Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie added that turkey simply looks the most celebratory. It makes a better centerpiece than, say, a pork loin or leg of venison.  Hale agreed. “The roasted turkey,” she wrote, “took precedence on this occasion.”

Amid all that meat, turkey was the prettiest.

The Stuffing (or Dressing)

And how did today’s traditional sides edge out all that extra meat?

Let’s start with the stuffing. Giving Thanks author Oliver told me that as long as people have been roasting hollow birds, those birds have been stuffed. That said, the pilgrims probably weren’t stuffing their birds with the bread stuffing we know and love. Fowl was likely roasted on a spit; if it was stuffed, it was with herbs and nuts. According to Castle, bread stuffing likely emerged among people who couldn’t afford to have lots of meat. It served as a way of enlarging the meal with whatever people had in abundance.

In the South, that meant the wealthiest people made stuffing out of biscuits, while residents of rice-growing areas used that dominant grain and those from corn-heavy reions made stuffing out of corn bread. The Sicilian community in New Orleans even used eggplant.

The Cranberries

Although the pilgrims likely ate cranberries, we have no record of them as being part of the Thanksgiving feast. Commercial cranberry cultivation began in 1816 and harvesting technologies developed over the course of the early nineteenth century. So, just as Thanksgiving became a national holiday, the native New England berry became widely available, a coincidence that would have repercussions for today’s November tables.

In 1864, Ulysses S. Grant ordered that cranberry sauce be part of Union soldiers’ Thanksgiving meal and the sauce gained traditional status for all time.

Of course, the sauce union soldiers ate probably didn’t look much like the canned cranberry sauce many of us are familiar with. Back when most people made their own cranberry sauce (you should think about doing that too, it’s much better), the debate was about whether to leave chunks of cranberries in your sauce or strain them out.

As with peanut butter, I’m firmly on the chunky side of this debate.

The Pie

Sandra Oliver explained to me that the early Thanksgiving meals were not served in courses. The meat would be on the table with sweet pies; some of the pies even included both meat and sugared fruit. Indeed, Oliver argues (although I wasn’t entirely convinced) that it’s a tragedy that we no longer eat mincemeat pie. (Mincemeat pie is made with leftover scraps of meat from the butchering process, apples, and other dried fruits.)

In addition to mincemeat pie there were likely apple pies and pumpkin pies. All of this was seasonal, local fare: today, that’s a buzzword, but back then it was just reality, since Thanksgiving fell at the end of apple, pumpkin, and butchering season.

As for pecan pie, it’s a Southern addition to the meal. Pecans grow in abundance in the South and their harvest occurs in the fall too. To this day, southerners also often replace pumpkin pie with sweet potato pie, another local crop.

The Lost Traditions

Reflecting on that mincemeat pie, I asked both Oliver and Castle what other Thanksgiving traditions we’ve lost due to our preoccupation with pie, turkey, and stuffing.

Castle told me a huge variety of homemade pickles used to appear at Southern Thanksgivings, but these have become rarer and rarer. Likewise, congealed salads, aka Jello molds, seemed to be falling out of favor. “If we’re not careful,” said Oliver sadly, “we’re going to lose creamed onions too.”

After my conversations with Oliver and Castle, I thought about what an odd feast our Thanksgiving tables really are. The foods we eat are at once the height of seasonal, locavore eating and regional transplants, far from home. Traditions picked up when our families lived one place, get dropped down somewhere else and then adopted by others. We eat pecan pie in New England because pecans are in season 1,000 miles away. Even my family’s food traditions follow this course. My parents started eating oysters at Thanksgiving, when they celebrated on the Chesapeake every year, 30 years ago. Now, no matter where we are, the raw oysters appear.  Maybe that’s just emblematic of our American diet.

Thanksgiving is comforting because we know that everyone in the country is sitting down to a meal of turkey, cranberries, stuffing, and pie. At the same, time our individual tables show our families’ histories, the foods we have added along the way remind us of where we have lived and who our friends are.

So, if you are hosting your first Thanksgiving or joining a friend’s, of course, you should eat turkey and pie with the rest of America. But, you might also feel free to start your own food tradition too. Maybe it will still be around 30 years from now. If nothing else, make some creamed onions for Sandra Oliver.

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