How Thanksgiving dinner has changed over the years

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  • Thanksgiving meals have changed significantly over the years, though their fowl-and-starch heavy composition has remained the same.
  • The modern Thanksgiving didn’t get its start until nearly 200 years after the first Thanksgiving celebrations.
  • Here’s how Thanksgiving has evolved over the years, from the dishes themselves to how the holiday has celebrated.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

People have been celebrating Thanksgiving in America in some form or another since the 1600s.

But the holiday has changed constantly over the centuries, along with the dishes people prepare for their Thanksgiving feasts.

Certain foods, like cranberries, have been associated with Thanksgiving for centuries, and may have even been present on the first Thanksgiving table. Others, like chicken pie, haven’t exactly stood the test of time.

Read on to see how Thanksgiving dinner – and the way we celebrate it – has changed over the centuries.


The earliest Thanksgivings were bigger lasted longer than today’s events. Accounts from the early 1600s describe celebrations that lasted multiple days and featured dozens of people.

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‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris depicts Pilgrims and natives gathering to share a meal in 1621. Everett Historical / Shutterstock

“They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.…Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted,” English settler Edward Winslow wrote in one of the few textual records of their first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Source:

Plymouth Plantation


The first Thanksgiving definitely featured a cooked bird — likely several — but it’s unclear whether wild turkey was one of them. Either way, ducks or geese likely also made an appearance on the Thanksgiving table.

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Historical records show that the Pilgrims in Plymouth went “fowling” for the meal, and we know that wild turkey were plentiful. But so were many other birds like geese and ducks. Another account from the fall of 1621 indicates that wild turkey were among the Pilgrims’ stores.

We do know that the Wampanoag tribe brought five deer to the occasion, so if you were thinking of adding some venison to the Thanksgiving plate, there’s historical precedent.

Source:

The History Channel

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Smithsonian Magazine


Love them or hate them, cranberries may have been the original Thanksgiving side dish by virtue of the fact they grew natively on American soil.

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Cranberry harvesters in Carver, Massachusetts. John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

There probably wasn’t cranberry sauce, however. While mixing sugar with cranberries wasn’t unheard of, sugar usually was too expensive to import and was not yet grown in North America at the time of the Pilgrims.

Source:

The History Channel


That said, the earliest mention of cranberry sauce served with turkey appears in a publication in the book ‘American Cookery’ in 1796, though the book also suggests ‘pickled mangoes’ as a just-as-suitable alternative.

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Source:

The Washington Post


Hold the mashed potatoes, though: There weren’t any at the first Thanksgivings.

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Unlike, for instance, wild corn, potatoes are not native to North America. As a result, they didn’t appear on the American plate until around a half century after that first Thanksgiving.

Source:

Smithsonian Magazine


Pumpkin pie made its debut as a Thanksgiving staple in the 19th century and was considered an ‘inevitable’ part of the holiday meal by 1869, according to a column in the Connecticut Courant at the time.

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Source:

The Washington Post


The ‘godmother of Thanksgiving’ wrote in 1827 that the definitive Thanksgiving featured not only turkey, but duck, goose, beef, mutton or pork, and chicken pie, which she called an ‘indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.’

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That’s from magazine editor and cookbook writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the last Thursday in November a Thanksgiving Day, though it wasn’t made an official federal holiday until 1941.

Source:

American Food Roots


The 19th century was when the modern Thanksgiving meal began to take shape, thanks to the republishing of pamphlets and historical records from the Pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving celebration and Hale’s tireless advocacy.

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Hale also frequently published Thanksgiving recipes in her magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. They featured many of our current Thanksgiving staples, including mashed potatoes, which were relatively uncommon at the time.

Source:

Smithsonian Magazine


Sweet potatoes have long been a Thanksgiving staple, but it wasn’t until 1917 that it became popular to top them with toasted marshmallows — now an iconic side dish. It was around that time that marshmallows had begun to be mass-produced instead of hand-crafted.

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The Angelus Marshmallow Company hired Janet McKenzie Hill of the Boston Cooking School Magazine to help spur sales by creating a recipe book featuring marshmallows as an integral star. Among these was the first recorded recipe for marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole.

Source:

Saveur


Green bean casserole wasn’t invented until 1955. Developed by Dorcas Reilly in the Campbell’s test kitchen in Camden, New Jersey in 1955, green bean casserole is now the most common Thanksgiving side dish in the Midwest.

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Not bad for a dish that Campbell’s had commissioned specifically to improve their sales of cream of mushroom soup.

And it worked, too. The company makes a whopping 40% of its total sales for the year of cream of mushroom soup for the year leading up to Thanksgiving.

Source:

Washington Post

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Smithsonian Magazine

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FiveThirtyEight


Oyster stuffing (or ‘dressing,’ if you prefer) was initially more popular than other simply bread-and-herb-based stuffings, thanks to the cheapness and abundance of oysters in New England, where the Thanksgiving celebration first found its footing.

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People used to even stuff their birds with oysters to stretch the meal.

Today, oyster dressing is uncommon outside of Gulf Coast states, where it’s still considered a mainstay. Few New Orleans Thanksgiving tables are without the family oyster dressing as one of the premier sides.

Source:

Serious Eats

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The Washington Post

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NOLA.com


Speaking of stuffing: Stove Top, a dried stuffing mix in a box, debuted in 1972, becoming a staple of many Thanksgiving tables through the decade and beyond. As of 2005, Kraft Foods still sells more than 60 million boxes of it each Thanksgiving.

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Source:

New York Times


We have Thanksgiving to thank for the TV dinner. A seasonal over-ordering of 260 tons of turkey by manufacturer Swanson led them to innovate the frozen and reheat-able packaged meals that revolutionised speedy cooking at home.

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Source:

Smithsonian Magazine


In 2019, more than a third of hosts plan to spend more time (38%) and money (39%) on Thanksgiving than they did the year before, and 57% plan to serve exclusively homemade dishes. A little less than half are budgeting more than $US200 for the meal.

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Source:

Discovery/Food Network


Modern Americans use Thanksgiving sides as a place to experiment with new dishes and techniques, while keeping guests happy with the traditional trappings of the meal like turkey and gravy.

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The relatively recent innovation of “Friendsgiving” — a Thanksgiving celebration with friends instead of family — is shaking up old standards and leading to more experimental Thanksgiving cooking.

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The word “Friendsgiving” wasn’t coined until around 2007, according to Merriam-Webster. The increasingly popular event is sparking a demand for alternative Thanksgiving foods and party ideas.

Source:

Merriam-Webster