The upcoming holiday season features many traditions, particularly surrounding the foods we eat–like turkey and pumpkin pie. But have you ever wondered why these particular foods are served on Thanksgiving? Or what is the holiday’s own unique food history and origin?
Thanksgiving as we know it in the United States today, is based on what is considered the traditional “first” Thanksgiving at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621.
It originated as a way to celebrate the Pilgrim’s bountiful autumn harvest. They were simply following a common English tradition by celebrating their bumper crop with a harvest festival. And, the Native Americans had been having festivals celebrating harvest and gratitude starting centuries before the arrival of Europeans in North America.
Eventually, similar harvest festivals began to be celebrated annually throughout New England. In 1777, the holiday was officially acknowledged when the Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving, although it was not yet a national holiday.
New York State adopted an annual Thanksgiving in 1817; By the middle of the 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated by many other states, but only in the New England area–it was not well known in the South. Each state that celebrated a Thanksgiving scheduled it’s own holiday, and they were observed on various dates between October and January.
President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, after twenty-three years of lobbying by Sara Josepha Hale, a well-known author and magazine editor of the time. She wrote a series of editorials and letters to five different U.S. presidents including Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln.
Unlike today’s Thanksgivings, pumpkin and turkey were not the staples of the holiday. Instead, venison and wild fowl were the main “stars” of the meal, while the other foods likely included fish, lobster, clams, berries, dried fruit, beans, and assorted vegetables such as peas, squash, onions, radishes, and lettuce, and pumpkin. But, since the pilgrims had no ovens at the time, pumpkins were generally boiled or stewed, rather than served in pies.
The regional foods of New England, including turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin, came to be identified with the holiday. These foods are now considered the traditional foods of Thanksgiving.