This article originally appeared in Ancestry Magazine, November-December 2007.
Since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Americans have enjoyed Thanksgiving celebrations on the last Thursday of November. That is until 1939. Because of the Great Depression, retailers and businesses pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up one week, thus extending the holiday shopping season and, hopefully, increasing sales. FDR complied and, surprisingly, was met with intense opposition. Thousands of letters reached the White House doors, telling of disrupted school schedules, turkey bowls, and family reunions. Some states ignored this presidential proclamation and celebrated Thanksgiving at its traditional time. After two years of a divided nation, FDR appeased the outrage and declared the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday.
Of commercially available meats today, turkey is the only one native to North America. New World explorers took to it immediately; by the 1500s, turkeys had already immigrated to Italy, France, and England, courtesy of these hungry adventurers.
Stuffing officially debuted around two millennia ago. In Apicus de re Coquinaria, the oldest existing cookbook, a Roman chef describes how to make vegetable, liver, or brain stuffing to fill a chicken, a pig, or even a dormouse.
How Do You Like Your Stuffing?
19th century: oyster stuffing
Southerners: pecan, rice, or cornbread stuffing
Italians: sausage stuffing
Germans: dried fruit, potato, or apple stuffing
Stuffing vs. Dressing
What’s in a name? That may depend on how closely you associate yourself with the Victorian Era. The term “stuffing” has been around since the 1500s, but in Victorian England, the term “stuffing” seemed a tad barbaric. The term “dressing” was introduced to please the very proper society.
“Crane-berries”—named by German and Dutch settlers for the plant’s birdlike appearance—were used extensively by Native Americans in cakes and dyes. The cranberry is one of only three major fruits native to North America (blueberries and grapes are the other two), so it’s no wonder they’ve become such an indispensable part of Thanksgiving dinner. Of the 400 million pounds of cranberries Americans consume each year, 20 percent are eaten during the week of Thanksgiving.
What—instant potatoes weren’t developed by NASA? Freeze-dried spuds are far older than space travel, dating back more than 400 years. Incas in South America would mash potatoes and spread them into a thin layer, leaving them to dry in the freezing temperatures. The end result was chuno. Additionally, civilizations have also used potatoes to heal broken bones, prevent rheumatism and indigestion, and even tell time by how long it took a potato to cook.
It’s not all Ranch (developed 1954) and Thousand Island (developed 1897). See how civilizations dressed their salads through the years:
China 3000 BC — Soy Sauce
Babylon 500 BC — Oil and Vinegar
Rome 50 BC — Worcestershire (equivalent) or Salt
France 1800 — Mayonnaise
America 2007 — Ranch or Blue Cheese
Flaky, buttery crusts have come a long way since the pie’s conception hundreds of years ago. Originally called coffins, pies were simply vessels with rigid crusts that were intended to preserve the filling within. Since 1620, when the Pilgrims first brought them to America, pies evolved to fit their environment. Native Americans looked to fruits and berries to fill pies. Westward migration brought a variety of regional specialties.
It’s unlikely this Thanksgiving staple was present for the first Thanksgiving dinner—pie-baking ovens just weren’t available to colonists so early on. But they undoubtedly had pumpkin, stewed with milk, honey, and spices in the pumpkin shell.
Nothing more American than baseball and apple pie, right? Not according to the British. Apple pie was made popular during Queen Elizabeth’s reign as a substitute for meat. You can imagine the colonists’ shock—and subsequent sadness—when the only apples they found in their new land were crab apples. By the mid 17th century, settlers had sent for their favorite fruits, and apple pie was restored.
It is believed that the French developed this Southern favorite soon after settling New Orleans. Though it’s probable that American Indians introduced them to the pecan, the first pecan pie recipe can be traced back only to 1925, placing it at the kids’ table of Thanksgiving pies.