The intriguing history behind Thanksgiving food

Thanksgiving foods

As people in the U.S. sit down to enjoy another holiday meal, they may not think about how traditional Thanksgiving dishes became tradition in the first place. Someone is, however, and is sharing the fascinating history behind ubiquitous food served at this time of year.

Most Americans know the legend of the sharing between Native Americans and Pilgrims that inspires the holiday, even if most of the details aren’t actually true. But how did turkey become the favored meat (native turkeys were dry and stringy), and how did we come upon oddities like marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole?

Many dishes can be traced back to effective marketing campaigns. The green bean casserole is one, created by “a home economist named Dorcas Reilly who worked in the Campbell Soup recipe kitchen, whose job it was to think up ways to use canned condensed soup in novel ways.” The same can be said for Jell-O molds. Aspics had long been popular, but with the ease of flavored instant gelatin packets came an explosion in the types of “salads” made with them. 

Although not a mass marketing campaign, industrialization played a part in the creation of sweet potato casserole as we know it today. Sweet potatoes had long been a part of celebratory meals. Often they were topped with meringue, and enterprising cooks viewed the mass-produced marshmallow as an easy substitute (the fact that it was also easy to chew in an era of bad teeth didn’t hurt). And even though this dish is associated with the southern United States, it was actually invented in the north.

One item, considered a delicacy in the 1700s, that graced tables from that time until the 1970s has all but disappeared from the Thanksgiving table–the olive and relish tray. As with many of the items above, celery’s popularity grew due to a successful advertising campaign to promote the celery industry. 

Whatever foods are on your holiday table, we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Photos clockwise from top left: Green bean casserolefrom Closet Cooking, Sweet potato casserole from Saveur, Morrocan-spiced olives from Better Homes & Gardens, and Grandma’s pineapple cucumber lime jello salad from Simply Recipes

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One Comment

  • FuzzyChef  on  December 2, 2014

    Thanks for posting this! It gave me lots of great click-through reading. I had no idea about the whole Olive and Celery thing; I had to ask my mother-in-law.

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