Thanksgiving history: Impress your holiday guests

Think any pilgrims would recognize that turkey on your table? Fat chance.

Thanksgiving, despite its current controversies and politically correct questionability, is deeply rooted in history.

Colonialism debates aside, the food is what remains central to the acknowledgment of the fourth Thursday of November each year.

Historian Libby H. O’Connell, historical food expert at the History Channel and author of the culinary history book “The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites” gives us the rundown on what our Thanksgiving table actually means.

Argue with your relatives while enlightening them with some little-known Thanksgiving food facts. 


The pilgrims didn’t do gluten.

Purchased a gluten-free pumpkin pie for your feast? This may be more historically accurate than the bird roasting in your oven.

While bread products overwhelm today’s Thanksgiving tables, the pilgrims tried to grow wheat and barley their first year in America, but with little success.

“They probably didn’t have much pie crust or stuffing at the first Thanksgiving,” Dr. O’Connell told amNewYork. People liked wheat, but it had to be imported.

Instead, diners in the 17th entury would have used corn and its derivatives, which has returned to Thanksgiving tables in forms like corn syrup (developed in the 20th century) in pecan pie.


Corn was key.

Maize was central to the Native Americans’ and Pilgrims’ diet, as corn was simple to grow and variations could be made easily.

“One of the foods that saved Plymouth settlers was maize, which they stole just after they landed on Cape Cod,” O’Connell explains in her book.


Forget the sweet desserts.

Dessert was rare as well.

“Sugar was not available to them at that time. It was so expensive and the pilgrims were not an affluent bunch,” said O’Connell.

Maple syrup, instead of marshmallows, would have been used to sweeten squash.


Lobsta’ and butta’ can be perfect for Thanksgiving dinner.

Fish and shellfish was a popular protein in New England in the 17th century.

“That was what was available,” O’Connell said. “People lived in an environment where they could pick up lobster off the beach– they even complained about having too much of it.”

Eel was most likely present at the first feast, too, (Thinking of putting in an order for unagi rolls this Thanksgiving?) though has since disappeared off American tables.

“Eel is still a stretch for a lot of people!” O’Connell said.

But what we put on our table today doesn’t necessarily emulate the first Thanksgiving in any way, but rather the antebellum period when Abraham Lincoln made the holiday an official national feast day, uniting the North and South. 

Southern specialities like cranberry jelly, sweet pies and succotash made with corn and lima beans are dishes commonly found on the 21st century Thanksgiving tables.


Plymouth Rock and Brooklyn have a lot in common.

Foods like organic jerky, which has gained popularity among recent Brooklyn settlers, would have been on the Thanksgiving table we envision as the first holiday, with Native Americans and New World settlers feasting together on preserved meats.

“Jerky is having a resurgence, both in Whole Foods and gas stations,” O’Connell said, noting that the latter version would be unrecognizable to diners of centuries past.


Thanksgiving traditions change.

While what’s on the table has certainly shifted over the years, the sentiment of Thanksgiving remains constant.

“The most important thing about Thanksgiving is sharing food together and sharing stories,” O’Connell said. “If we’re eating kimchi at Thanksgiving and coming together around a table with stories, then kimchi is a part of Thanksgiving as much as any other food!” 

O’Connell says that a few cherished dishes that have disappeared over the years include wild rice salad, popular with Native Americans and chicken pie, which was included on every menu.

“It can be so delicious,” she said. “Because we definitely need more to eat on Thanksgiving!”

Melissa Kravitz