A foodie festival even older than the United States itself, Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in its fair share of history. Ever since the pilgrims celebrated their first successful New World harvest in 1621, Americans have spent every subsequent autumn eating an increasingly bizarre array of snacks that make absolutely no sense at any other time of year. Not that that makes them any less delicious.
But, even though the modern Thanksgiving feast holds a special place for every American, there have been some major changes to the lineup over the years. Over time, fads have come and gone, to the point where we wouldn’t recognise half the foods that previous generations couldn’t do without. Taking a look back through the historic recipe book, here's how what we eat over Thanksgiving has changed over the last 400 years.
1. Deer oh Dear
While the idea of a Thanksgiving dinner without a great, golden turkey sitting in the middle of the table is unimaginable today, things were a little different in 1621. While most historians agree that turkey was present at that first fateful meal, it is widely believed that it was venison that took centre stage during the feast itself, as deer were extremely plentiful in the New England area.
2. Mince Meat
Pumpkin pie might be all the rage these days, but for a significant period of Thanksgiving history it was well down the list of diners’ favourite sweet treats. Mince meat - a mixture of chopped, dried and spiced fruits and nuts, was incredibly popular until the early 20th century, when pumpkin finally began to take its place.
3. Jell-O, is it Me You’re Looking For?
The recipe books of the 1950s might now look like something out of a horror film, but it’s impossible to understate how much people used to love Jell-O. Everything from salads to desserts were fashioned into enormous, quivering molds, before being proudly presented alongside normal things like turkey and stuffing. It might be the stuff of a modern culinary nightmare, but Jell-O once ruled the roost.
4. Something Fishy
Though the modern Thanksgiving dinner table is dominated by food found on land, it turns out that our feasts were once much more varied in their contents. Dozens of different contemporary recipes, some dating back as far as the 1700s, detail that fish and seafood were once an important part of the menu, including oysters, lobsters and sea bass.
5. Turtles for Tea
If fish alongside stuffing sounds tricky to stomach, it was nothing next to some of our ancestor’s more unusual aquatic proclivities. An account of the legendary novelist Mark Twain’s 70th birthday party reveals that, together with turkey and currant jelly, guests could expect to enjoy “Green Turtle” soup and “Baltimore Terrapin” on toast.
6. Potato Presence
Potatoes might now be an indispensable part of every major family roast, but this has not always been the case. Historians believe that the first potatoes did not arrive in North America until the 1720s - around 100 years after the first Thanksgiving took place. Though it’s impossible to imagine the holiday without a big bowl of mash, it turns out that this is actually a relatively new addition to the menu.
7. Mega Meals
For all the subtle changes to the traditional midday meal, perhaps the biggest has nothing to do with what we eat, but rather how we eat it. According to reporting from Mother Jones in 2014, the average modern turkey is more than twice the size of its 1930s counterpart, weighing around 30lbs. This helps explain why we are in some cases eating twice as much for Thanksgiving as our grandparents, according to researchers from the University of North Carolina.
One of the things that makes Thanksgiving such a special occasion is the opportunity to indulge in a little bit of tradition. But, tempting though it is to believe that how we celebrate has gone unchanged for hundreds of years, it’s clear that we’ve actually come a long way from the days of deer and turtles on the table. Who’s to say where Thanksgiving food may end up in another 400 years?