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The roots of your Thanksgiving dishes

On Thursday, millions of Americans will dive into traditional Thanksgiving dishes. But many don’t know the roots of those recipes, the ingredients for which have been used in New England since long before the Pilgrims arrived.

On Thursday, millions of Americans will sit at their dining room tables, ready to dive into some of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. But many of them have no idea about the roots of those recipes.

This story first appeared in Globe Rhode Island’s Food & Dining newsletter, a free weekly email about Rhode Island’s restaurant industry that also contains information about local events, Q&As with chefs, dining guides, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail each Thursday, you can sign up here.


It has been 401 years since the first Thanksgiving supper took place with the Wampanoag and Pilgrims. But there’s more to the story than most of us were taught in school.

It’s partially true that the generous Wampanoag, the Indigenous people living in Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, helped the religious-freedom seeking Europeans survive the brutal New England winter. That first three-day feast celebrated a bountiful harvest, but it was followed by years of colonization and an unfolding genocide of the Wampanoag people.

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Since 1970, the fourth Thursday of November is considered a National Day of Mourning.

On Thursday, millions of Americans will sit at their dining room tables, surrounded by loved ones, ready to dive into some of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. But many of them have no idea about the roots of those recipes, the ingredients for which have been used in New England since long before the Pilgrims arrived.

A “three sisters” garden planted by Native students on the campus of Syracuse University in August 2022. TAHILA MINTZ/NYT

Squash, corn, and beans: The “Three Sisters” were the principal crops of the Narragansett and Wampanoag people. In the Northeast in particular, tribes were planting these three together for at least 300 years before any Europeans arrived. They are high in nutritional value and planting them together had a minimal environmental impact. To make a misickquatash or succotash, the three are cooked together along with some type of protein.

A roasted turkey and gravy with onions and sage.JOHNNY MILLER/NYT

Turkey: Long before the first Thanksgiving in 1621, turkeys were a large part of daily life for many tribes. The meat was used as food, of course, but the feathers were used in clothing and arrows, bones were used as tools. Recently, researchers found that turkeys were potentially domesticated by early tribes in what is now the southeastern part of the US. However, turkey likely wasn’t the main course for the earliest Thanksgivings. It was probably goose, duck, wild deer, or venison. Turkey became the star of the holiday in the late 1880s.

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Cranberry sauce with cardamom and brown sugar. Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post

Cranberry sauce: Forget the sauce you might get from a can. Wojape is a traditional Native American sauce that uses cranberries (or any other kind of berries you can find). It’s sweetened with honey or maple syrup.

Silky pumpkin pieScott Suchman/For The Washington Post

Pumpkin pie: Native tribes were growing pumpkins by 2,500 BCE. They were roasted on hot cinders, boiled to make sauces, or dried to make jerky strips or flour. While bakers in Medieval Europe stuffed pastries with sweet or savory fillings to make pies, pumpkins were not brought back to the continent from the Americas until the 1500s. Cookbooks from the 16th and 17th centuries recommended that the pumpkin be boiled in milk before placing it in a flour crust, and it was usually layered with apples and savory herbs like rosemary and thyme.

Want to change things up this Thanksgiving? The Boston Globe has a ton of recipes that are modern takes on the classics. Here are a few standouts:

If you have suggestions or need a recommendation, shoot me an email at Alexa.Gagosz@globe.com.

Visit Food & Dining in Rhode Island for more. Because everyone’s gotta eat!

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.