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The story of four Thanksgiving ingredients

Thanksgiving meals have come a long way since the first shared feast back at Plymouth Colony in 1621. While our reasons for gathering today may have changed dramatically since that first harvest celebration, there is still a familiar cast of ingredients that make up the what is now traditional the Thanksgiving meal: turkey, corn, squash, and cranberries. As we have been exploring at our weekly cooking demonstrations, Food Fridays, those ingredients didn't come out of nowhere—they reflect specific changes in how we've grown, cooked, and eaten food in America.

Menu for Thanksgiving with cartoon, stylized image of a stereotypical pilgrim grabbing a turkey by the neck

So how did these iconic ingredients make their way onto the Thanksgiving menu? Join us for a quick peek inside the stories behind these four Thanksgiving foods to whet your appetite and your mind as you prepare for your own feast.

Squash

Photo of a large, neatly round orange pumpkin among green leavs

Two adult men and five small children pose for a color photo in a field with lots of pumpkins

  • Squash was first domesticated in Central America and quickly became one of three primary crops of the American Indian diet in the Northeast region of present-day United States. (Pumpkins would have been featured among the earliest Northeast squashes, though not all squashes grown were pumpkins.)
  • Squash and pumpkin seeds then made their way to Europe, thanks to colonists from the nobility classes who liked featuring foods from the New World in their Old World kitchen gardens. 
  • Traditional American Indian methods for cooking and eating squash included boiling pumpkins whole or roasting squash in strips over the fire. Colonists often enjoyed pumpkins steamed and then filled with milk or cream to make a custard. They also enjoyed dried pumpkin, especially in a popular cocktail called a "flip," which included sugar, molasses, strong beer, and rum.

Corn

Black and white photo of a woman among tall corn stalks, smiling

  • Corn, like squash, has its origins in Central America, where it was a staple crop for the Aztecs and Mayans. Corn grew northward from southern Mexico up through the area now known as Texas and then was carried beyond to regions like New England by American Indians who found it easy to grow and versatile to prepare.
  • Corn was part of the Iroquois "Three Sisters" tradition for growing, along with beans and squash. Planted together, these crops gave each other structural support, helped fertilize the soil, and, when eaten, provided a nutritious balance of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and vitamins. 
  • During the Revolutionary war, many colonists chose to use cornmeal instead of wheat-based flour, to demonstrate greater culinary and economic independence from the British.
  • Today corn is used in many products. It can be refined for use as an artificial sweetener, milled into animal feed, made into plastics and building materials, and even made into biofuel.

Cranberries

Wooden crate marked "cranberries"

  • There are several theories to how “cranberry” got its names and, according to Plimoth Plantation food historian Kathleen Wall, there are several other English names for the berry: Fen-berries, Fen-grapes; Marish-Berries, Marish-worts, Marish –whortleberries; Mosse-berries, or Moore-berries.

  • The Wampanoag brought venison and may have brought cranberries to the first harvest celebration, as cranberries were native to the region. But a cranberry sauce like those we're used to would have required too much imported sugar to prepare. At that time, cranberries would likely have been eaten in a rough compote, more savory than sweet with just a touch of honey or maple syrup.

  • For decades, cranberries were too delicate to transport long distances and were consumed mostly in New England. But in 1912, Marcus Urann, head of the United Cape Cod Cranberry Co., started packaging and selling canned cranberry sauce. Cranberries in this form could enjoy a longer shelf life and quickly become a fixture on the Thanksgiving table far away from cranberry bogs.
Painting

Turkeys:

  • Turkeys were an important source of sustenance among native peoples of Central and South America. The farmed turkey enjoyed most frequently in North America today (Meleagris gallopavo) is related to the wild birds found north of the Rio Balsas in Mexico.
  • As far as the European adoption of New World ingredients, turkeys were considered one of the greatest and most rapid successes—by 1511 the king of Spain was ordering every returning ship to bring back 10 turkeys. Wealthy European hosts loved impressing their guests with large roasted birds such as swans, cranes, or peacocks, but turkeys surpassed these birds in both flavor and availability. 
  • Colonists in the early 1600s found wild turkey to be so plentiful that a dozen or more could easily be shot at a time. Unfortunately, they were overhunted in New England by 1670, and became generally rare in the country overall by the end of the 19th century.
  • We know that wild fowl was served at the first Thanksgiving but don't know for sure that turkey was on the menu. Their role wasn't set in the public imagination until the mid-1800s, when Sarah Josepha Hale's turkey-centric depiction of the holiday in her novel, Northwood, began to be adopted as the day's menu. Hale lobbied President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and Lincoln eventually did so in 1863 near the end of the Civil War.

We hope this gives you some food for thought as you sit down for Thanksgiving this year. Looking for last minute recipes or a culinary challenge? Check out the pumpkin, corn, cranberry, and fowl recipes from our Food Fridays program for some inspiration.

Jessica Carbone is the host of Food Fridays at the National Museum of American History and works with our curatorial team on all things food history. Check out the upcoming schedule and past recipes for more chances to turn up the heat on food history! Meg Salocks works on jazz and food history programs and recommends you sign up for the museum's food newsletter for more culinary stories and activities.