Thanksgiving is famously a time to be grateful for all of the wonderful things in one's life. It’s a special holiday synonymous with reconnecting with family, watching football, and, of course food. Yes, while it’s important to remember to give thanks on the third Thursday of November every year, Thanksgiving dinner is the hallmark of the holiday. It’s a feast that, in my experience, requires days of preparation, but is one of the best meals of the year.

Everyone knows the story of the First Thanksgiving, but what about our modern idea of Thanksgiving dinner? How did staples such as turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie come to grace our tables? What is the history of the foods we eat on Thanksgiving? Stay tuned.


No Thanksgiving meal is complete without turkey (sorry vegetarians), but have you ever wondered why it is that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Why not beef, or chicken? Well, in reality, turkey actually was featured on the table of the First Thanksgiving. The pilgrims ate some wild turkey, as well as venison. Wild turkeys were highly prevalent in the Eastern United States at the time of the First Thanksgiving, so they were easily hunted and prepared for the famous meal.

Modern historians can be sure that turkey was eaten during the First Thanksgiving because they found letters from people who were there stating that the pilgrims and the Native Americans feasted on turkey. Turkey is one of the only dishes that was served at the First Thanksgiving that we also eat at our modern Thanksgivings. Turkey is a staple of Thanksgiving dinner because we know for sure that it was enjoyed during the famous three-day festivities of 1621. In keeping with tradition, we still eat it in remembrance of the First Thanksgiving.

turkey, chicken
Morgan Goldberg

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are certainly a staple of Thanksgiving dinner. Whether baked into muffins, popped into cocktails, or simmered down to a sauce, most tables will feature cranberries on Thanksgiving.

Cranberries grow in the Northeast, and were a favorite of the Wampanoag Native American tribe. It is highly possible that cranberries asserted themselves in some manner on the table of the First Thanksgiving, however, they were most likely not featured as a sauce. Also, cranberry harvesting season takes place from September to November, making Thanksgiving the perfect time to feast on these tasty berries.

Companies such as Ocean Spray began packaging cranberry sauce in the mid 1900s, making it even more accessible to busy Americans. However, I don’t think anything can compare to good old-fashioned homemade cranberry sauce (especially with a bit of orange zest).

sweet, juice, cranberry
Nathalie Kent


Stuffing, sometimes called dressing, is by far my favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, I could skip everything else and simply chow down on an enormous plate of stuffing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat stuffing any other time of year, so why is it so prevalent on Thanksgiving?

Stuffing was probably not on the menu at the First Thanksgiving, however, European settlers in North America brought the idea of stuffing fowl with them across the Atlantic. You see, peacock was a specialty among European aristocracy. It was prepared by stuffing the bird with a similar version of our modern idea of stuffing. Since turkeys spread their colorful feathers like a peacock, settlers treated the preparation of the bird in the same way.

Also, before ovens were invented, turkeys were cooked over a spit. It was simply more efficient to cook the stuffing inside the bird, instead of trying to cook it separately over the fire. Therefore, stuffing and turkey go hand-in-hand. Since we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, it is only natural that we accompany it with stuffing.

Liz Kaplan

Pumpkin Pie

I have to admit, pumpkin pie is not my favorite; I much prefer pecan pie. However, for many Americans, pumpkin pie is the highlight of Thanksgiving dinner. The pilgrims lacked the proper ingredients to prepare a pumpkin pie, although pumpkins probably featured in some form during the First Thanksgiving. 

In the mid-1800s, a magazine editor by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale created a menu for Thanksgiving dinner that was inspired by the ingredients present on the First Thanksgiving, but curated for a modern audience. She then published her recipes, one of which was for the imminently popular pumpkin pie. Americans loved it so much, it became a staple of Thanksgiving dinner.

This Thanksgiving, avoid the inevitable awkward family drama and tell the histories of these Thanksgiving dinner staples. Trust me, they’ll taste even better now that you know why you’re eating them. Knowing the history of the food we eat creates a sense of community and attachment to traditions and customs that are passed down through generations.

pie, pumpkin, sweet, cake
Rebecca Li