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Thanksgiving Food Traditions

Thanksgiving Food Traditions

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.

Read more: Family, Food, Holidays, Holidays & Gifts, Life, Thanksgiving, , ,

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Judi Gerber

Judi Gerber is a University of California Master Gardener with a certificate in Horticultural Therapy. She writes about sustainable farming, local foods, and organic gardening for multiple magazines. Her book Farming in Torrance and the South Bay was released in September 2008.


+ add your own
12:19PM PST on Dec 12, 2012


6:25AM PST on Nov 22, 2012

we don't do Thanksgiving over here, but nevertheless.....very nice post, thanks

1:07PM PST on Nov 12, 2012

Interesting,thANK YOU.

6:11PM PST on Nov 11, 2012

Thank you.

12:40AM PST on Nov 9, 2011

Thanks for the article.

11:38AM PDT on Jun 22, 2011

Very interesting. No Thanksgiving here.aahh

3:58PM PST on Feb 12, 2010


6:16PM PST on Dec 19, 2009

Very interesting reading indeed. Even though I am from the deep South and would not traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving, I have adopted the custom since moving to New England. But being a vegetarian, I needed to alter the menu. So we have the Southern tradition of red beans and rice, big salads, and to complete the meal.with yet another Southern tradition, we have sweet potato pie.

3:23PM PST on Dec 19, 2009


2:46PM PST on Dec 19, 2009

sounds yummy

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