How are your Thanksgiving dinner plans coming along? Are you planning to do things differently this year? I am looking forward to a cozy solo holiday weekend of gluten-free pumpkin pie, books, and some nice red wine. I will also be having a virtual cook-off of sorts with a couple of friends in different parts of the world as we each try out a different mid-century cheeseball recipe. Cheeseballs were one of the dishes I featured in my blog post “1950s recipes for the holidays that aren’t as loved today” and I am looking forward to trying it.
Not on my list of mid-century dishes that are no longer as loved today are the dishes listed in my two-part series on Fun Facts about Thanksgiving Dishes (get part one here). While some of them came onto American tables in the 1950s, they have all stuck around, even simply for tradition’s sake.
What is your favorite Thanksgiving dish, and did I miss it? I’d love to hear what you enjoy and if you learned something new about it during this series.
While turkey has a long history as a Thanksgiving tradition, the way consumers obtain the bird each year has drastically changed from the early days of the holiday. While many families today procure their Thanksgiving turkeys in a number of modern ways including ordering from organic specialty shops or buying frozen ahead of time, prior to modern refrigeration families couldn’t pick and choose how their turkey made its way to the table. Instead, as part of the holiday festivities, neighborhoods waited anxiously for a “turkey run” to make it through their town.
Think of a miniature, and chaotic, cattle drive. Turkey farmers from mostly Vermont marched their turkeys from state to state, even as far as Colorado at one point. One main requirement of the turkey driver? Patience. The runs were slow, averaging 10-12 miles a day, and the turkeys incorrigible, refusing to walk after dusk or in misperceived dusk, causing drivers to pray for clear skies.
Turkey runs continued to take place into the 1900s, with a slow digression beginning in the early 1850s with the invention of the refrigerated car.
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows
It sure is delicious, and hilarious, but how did topping baked sweet potatoes with hundreds of marshmallows get to be so popular that it is served next to more civilized dishes such as homemade rolls? The popular side dish graced the first Thanksgiving dinner table in 1917 when food science scholar and Boston Cooking School Magazine founder Janet McKenzie Hill was hired by Angelus Marshmallows to help create recipes for an upcoming collection. The company’s goal? To market the fluffy morsels as an everyday ingredient. While marshmallows have now largely been relegated to campfires and gingerbread houses, the recipe was an enormous hit, as sweet potatoes had historically been a side dish of this famous autumn occasion, and casseroles were ever-increasing in popularity as the century rolled on.
While sweet potato and marshmallow casserole joined the Thanksgiving table just over a hundred years ago, stuffing is one of the holiday’s dishes with a more ancient history. The first reference to this dish occurs in one of the earliest cookbooks known to man, the Apicius, compiled around 900 AD. The Roman cookbook includes recipes for stuffed pig, hare, chicken, and dormouse (yes, that would be a type of mouse) among others. Written for wealthier households, such dishes can be found among other hearty dishes such as eggs and pine nut sauce, roasted wild boar, cheesecake, and a recipe that calls for flamingo.
The dish has remained in use ever since, though it is as likely to be prepared outside of the bird as it is inside. Ingredients also vary widely according to region, with oysters found in stuffing served in New England and wild rice found in recipes on the opposite side of the country in the northwest.
Macaroni and cheese
Macaroni and cheese has recently climbed the ranks of Thanksgiving dishes. Once considered to be a regional tradition for Southern families, it now lists among the most favorite side dishes for the holiday. And unlike most of the dishes on the list, it is not because of passed-down tradition that we now include it as holiday fare, but simply because Americans can’t get enough of it and apparently look for as many excuses to enjoy it as possible. Mac and cheese constantly ranks on lists of top comfort foods in America, is the number cheese-related recipe in the country, and is a top favorite children’s food as well. It was the first-ever boxed food created in America with one million boxes sold each day. Recently, is has seen a spike in popularity in restaurants and fast-food menus. As apparently few of us are willing to protest it showing up, it has seen an unprecedented rise in acceptance as a Thanksgiving side.
Although it is fairly new to Thanksgiving celebrations, macaroni and cheese has been around for a while. If you need a more traditional origin for your Thanksgiving dishes consider this: it is known to have been one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite dishes.
Because pumpkins have such a rich history of being used in Europe for baked goods, it is likely that the earliest Pilgrim feasts included pumpkin pie as a dessert. It was apparently also popular from the beginning, making it another of the few traditional Thanksgiving foods to have been passed down since then. It was so popular, in fact, that early Americans couldn’t fathom the thought of a Thanksgiving celebration without one. Nor were they willing to see what that would look like. In 1705, Colchester, Connecticut went so far as to postpone the holiday for a week due to a molasses shortage that made it impossible to make pumpkin pie.
While we enjoy a fairly basic recipe after Thanksgiving dinner today, the early recipes looked a lot different and included more ingredients. One popular way to prepare pumpkin pie was to layer it with sliced apples, while one early New England recipe involved pouring the custard back into the hollowed-out pumpkin and then baking it over an open fire.