On Thursday, almost nine out of ten Americans will gather around Thanksgiving dinner—some version of the traditional family-style meal of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie. And once again the accepted wisdom about how the Thanksgiving meal took root and what it means will be rolled out.
This story is as much a tradition as the meal itself. Even if we doubt the schoolroom version of an unbroken tradition going back to a founding feast shared by Native Americans and Pilgrims, it is still easy to think of Thanksgiving as a celebration of the bounty of the New World, an American custom whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
But food—what we eat and why we eat it—is rarely as simple as the tales we tell about it. In the case of Thanksgiving, a closer look at the history of the dishes we set out and how they came together on our tables suggests a different story.
Thanksgiving as we know it today—a holiday that brings family and nation together over roast turkey—took shape 150 ago. And although it is certainly built on American culinary traditions, the meal we’ll eat on Thursday is also built around a political principle. It is a deliberate, small-r republican contrast to the haute cuisine that for millennia had been served at events of state.
Food can embody ideas as well as customs, and our standard Thanksgiving draws on a long tradition of antimonarchical political and culinary thought. These ideas had deep European roots in France, England, and the Dutch Republic, and even before that among Roman republicans and the Church fathers.
Political philosophers and cookbook authors alike had long railed against the appetizers, complex sauces, sweets, and expensive, imported ingredients central to high cuisine. Indulging in these created an appetite for expensive luxuries that, it was widely believed, ruined the individual, the household, and the nation. But it was in the United States that the simple meal that these people advocated became a national celebration embracing all citizens.
Starting in the 1840s, Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the nation’s most widely circulated women’s magazine, campaigned in print and in letters to politicians to extend Thanksgiving, a holiday already celebrated in New England, to the country as a whole. She finally persuaded Abraham Lincoln to declare a national holiday in 1863. It was, in Lincoln’s words, intended to restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and union” to a nation torn by the Civil War.
At that time, the ruling classes in much of the world dined on French haute cuisine, widely regarded as a mark of a civilized, progressive nation. From Britain to Russia, from Mexico to Japan, and in the United States as well, diners dressed in formal attire sat at tables set with expensive crystal, china, and silver. Servants passed a sequence of richly sauced meats, elaborate molded desserts, and hothouse fruits that neither they, nor the professional cooks who prepared them, could enjoy. It was everything the anti-aristocratic republican tradition was arguing against.
To Hale and others like her, a feast based on such haute cuisine, far from being the hallmark of a modern nation, would only perpetuate the monarchic traditions so firmly repudiated by “our Great Republic.” To make good on its political ideals, the new state had to find a middle way—a meal that lay somewhere between the extravagance of Old World aristocratic feasts and the scanty fare of the common people.
The will to bridge this gap had long been at work in American political thought, and had long been expressed through food. In the 1760s, as a patriotic protest the Daughters of Liberty had organized boycotts of expensive imported tea, offering recipes for local herbal alternatives. In 1796, a few years after crowds in Paris had protested the king’s failure to ensure their daily bread, Amelia Simmons, the author of the first American cookbook, “American Cookery” (1796), promised her readers pies and cakes “adapted to this country and all grades of life.” And Lydia Maria Child’s “Frugal Housewife” (1829), which went through 32 editions in the succeeding 25 years, preached the values of the simple home-cooked meal as truly republican.
In her magazine, Sarah Hale published recipes for roast turkey and pumpkin pie, and popularized homecoming for the holiday through sentimental poems, images, and stories of “traditional” Thanksgivings. In the Union states, at least, her campaign finally found a receptive audience, accustomed through long tradition to the notion that household meals of national ingredients contributed to the flourishing of the greater American family. Although the wealthy continued to dine French-style on other occasions, and although the South was not to accept it until after Reconstruction, Thanksgiving was on its way to being the celebration we recognize.
Turkey, a large, affordable, and readily available fowl, allowed the whole family generous servings of meat. Pumpkin pie could be prepared by the housewife in the home kitchen. Children, traditionally barred from aristocratic tables, were expected at the meal as well, to be physically nourished by ample, wholesome food and mentally nourished as they absorbed civic principles from the adults’ manners and conversation.
Neither turkey nor pie nor any of the other dishes that appear on the Thanksgiving table was a new invention. All of them had appeared in other times and other contexts. Gravy was a democratized version of lush sauces served at court; cranberry relish has origins that stretch through medieval Europe to Islam. This thing we now call tradition was a creative reworking of culinary elements from different, often even unrecognized cultures to create a feast that in its accessibility to all citizens was uniquely American.
Over the years, as the Thanksgiving dinner has spread to all regions, all faiths, and successive waves of immigrants within the United States, it’s been easy to forget what a radical achievement it was, and what a specific expression of American ideas. When we look across the table on Thursday, we see a meal both more politically American and more philosophical than many of us give it credit for. What could be more worthy of thanks?
Though native to America, the turkey took a long detour through the European courts, where cooks had no doubt that, like swans, herons, and peacocks, it was a regal bird to be roasted and set before a king. But unlike those birds, turkeys were so abundant in North America that nearly any settler who could shoot straight could catch and eat one. A crossing of domesticated English and American varieties in the 19th century created the ancestor of our inexpensive, commercially produced, big-breasted turkey.
The thickening technique of mixing flour and fat to make a roux replaced medieval traditions of using bread crumbs or pulverized nuts. The first recipe appears as part of the preparation of roast turkey in La Varenne’s “Le Cuisinier françois” (1651), the foundational cookbook of French high cuisine. By the 19th century, its elaborate successor, sauce espagnole, was for the rich; the simple brown version appeared in more modest homes.
Raspberries in season accompanied La Varenne’s roast turkey—a holdover from the sweet-sour flavor profile that characterized court meals in medieval Europe, ultimately deriving from Islamic cuisine. Though fruits largely dropped out of meat courses in French cuisine, gleaming scarlet red currant or rowan jelly remain standard in Britain and Germany. Cranberries are most likely a New World substitute.
La Varenne’s turkey was stuffed with expensive meats, a display of wealth at a time when many families could afford meat only rarely. The American turkey is dressed with wheat bread or corn bread, a less expensive alternative that the cook flavors with fats, herbs, and other flavorings.
Nothing was more aristocratic, expensive, and labor-intensive in the 19th century than aspics and gelatins made from scratch with clarified calves’ foot broth. When Jell-O and Knox became available in the early 20th century, they made it possible for any housewife to create these fantasy dishes. And they did with such abandon that what had been the pinnacle of high cuisine was reduced, by the end of the century, to the butt of jokes.
Root vegetables and pumpkin
Asparagus, peas, and green beans were the darling vegetables of high cuisine. Pumpkins, sweet potatoes, or onions were more homely fare that rose to the occasion by being enriched with cream, butter, sugar, and spices.
Fine vegetables such as green beans had often been paired with an accompanying béchamel sauce, the pale twin to sauce espagnole. The kitchen labor involved nearly vanished in the 1950s when the Campbell Soup Co. published a chic modern recipe for out-of-season green beans from a can or the freezer, enrobed in an instant sauce of cream of mushroom soup.
Of all the dishes on the Thanksgiving table, pies may have the longest and most complicated ancestry: dense flour-and-water crusts have since time immemorial served as baking dish, storage container, and preservative for meat. In mince pies, the meat was gradually crowded out by dried fruits and spices. Flaky crusts became possible with expensive wheat flour and butter or lard, a combination found only in northern Europe. Sweet pies became economical with the cheaper sugar produced in the Caribbean starting in the 16th century.
Thanksgiving’s breadth has allowed it to accommodate any number of new traditions, from pumpkin empanadas and rice stuffing to the latke variants that will undoubtedly show up at “Thanksgivukkah” this year. Even these can have surprisingly long histories. “Mock turkey” for vegetarians first appeared on a menu prepared in 1894 by Ella Kellogg; she was the wife of John Harvey Kellogg, the Seventh Day Adventist and health guru who gave America cornflakes.
Rachel Laudan is author of the recently published “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History” (University of California Press).