Starting a Tradition: What Thanksgiving Starters Tell Us About American History

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Begin Thanksgiving with a little history. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Thanksgiving has long been a mix of fact and civic mythology; the stories we tell schoolchildren about the peaceful friendship of Pilgrims and Indians have never included much of the real story of American colonization. Likewise, the stories we tell about the foods traditionally heaped onto our Thanksgiving tables often start and end with visions of Plymouth Rock. Like US history, though, the roots of many Thanksgiving foods are a lot more complex—and sometimes quite a bit darker—than the myths. But some of the first bites of the Thanksgiving feast can tell us quite a lot about the holiday's history.

Of course, not everyone thinks hors d'oeuvres and appetizers have a place in the Thanksgiving meal. Pile the table high, give thanks, and dig in, that's how it goes, right? Food writer Sam Sifton, for one, is adamant about this point: "There is no place for an appetizer course in a proper Thanksgiving meal." He does, however, make an exception for oysters, which "don't take up any space in the stomach." But why do so many people eat oysters on Thanksgiving? The answer has to do with how the menu we think of today as "Thanksgiving dinner" developed over time—through migration, war, technological innovations, and the deliberate efforts of a few dedicated people.

Though feasts of gratitude had long been common among local Native people, the Wampanoag and newly arrived British colonists shared the meal popularly regarded as the "first Thanksgiving" in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. According to historian Charles Mann, though, it wasn't simply a friendly feast. The Wampanoag were facing multiple threats: they were at war with the nearby Narragansett, scruffy Europeans were attempting to settle their land, and news was beginning to arrive about a terrible epidemic sweeping the land. Amid all this, Mann writes, Massasoit, political leader of the Wampanoag, hoped to "incorporate the Pilgrims into the web of native politics" by allying with them against the Narragansett:

By fall the settlers' situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with ninety people, most of them young men with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food, and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

That meal almost certainly included shellfish like oysters, clams, and mussels, always a staple of coastal Native people's traditional diets, according to historian Kathleen Wall. Although they can be a pricy treat today, for most of American history oysters were the food of the people: they were a ubiquitous New York City street food throughout the nineteenth century. (Refrigeration? Who needs it!) They fell out of favor only after the 1920s, when New York's fisheries collapsed due to pollution and sewage. Today raw oysters are especially popular at Thanksgiving tables along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in the Pacific Northwest.

In Charleston, South Carolina, on the other hand, outdoor oyster roasts are a festive way to greet the cold weather: Matt and Ted Lee (the Lee Brothers, Charleston's favorite chef duo) wax poetic about "the thud of the shells against the shucking table, the slurps, the scrum of friends sharing gloves and knives." It's no surprise, then, that roasted oysters often make it to Thanksgiving tables in the South. Toppings vary from the simple (butter and bread crumbs) to the rich (leeks and bacon) to the retro (spinach and cheddar).

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Get your crab dip. [Photo: Marvin Gapultos]

Seafood in general has been part of Thanksgiving from its inception, since, as Wall notes, fish were far more crucial a part of coastal North Americans' diets than were turkeys. (In fact, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag mostly likely ate wild goose, duck, or passenger pigeon.) Today seafood is more likely to appear at the beginning of the Thanksgiving meal, in a variety of regional forms. Crab dip combines sweet crabmeat with Worcestershire sauce and rich dairy ingredients like cheddar and mayonnaise, served hot with crackers. Old Bay spice is a popular addition in Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region, where crab season runs from April to December, while New Orleanians add hot sauce. Mainers swap out the crab for lobster and add walnuts for some crunch. On the Gulf coast of Florida, seafood dips are served cold; a regional favorite in the Clearwater area is smoked amberjack dip with mayonnaise, chopped celery, and a generous squeeze of lemon.

In Oregon, Washington, and Alaska there's little need to mess with the perfection of local salmon, though smoking allows it to be served year-round, including at Thanksgiving. If you're in Minnesota or Wisconsin, though, you might well be offered lutefisk, a traditional Norwegian preparation of cod with the consistency of Jell-O, served with hot melted butter and lefse, a soft, flat potato bread. The cod is dried, then cured in food-grade lye (though, according to Smithsonian magazine, "it's still so close to toxic that the state of Wisconsin specifically exempts lutefisk from classification as a toxic substance"). This love-it-or-hate-it dish is reputed to have sustained Viking sailors on long voyages; it came to America with Norwegian farmers and is a beloved symbol of Minnesotan cuisine, though some Minnesotans enjoy the idea of lutefisk more than the actual flavor.

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Roast chestnuts with spiced melted butter. [Photo: Marvin Gapultos]

Roast chestnuts were another staple of the early 1600s. Millions of chestnut trees blanketed the East Coast and their nuts lay on the forest floor, free for the taking by humans and pigs alike—"everyone's free food," according to food historians Linda and Fred Griffith, at least until a tree blight nearly wiped them out in the early twentieth century. Today native chestnut varieties are comparatively rare in the US, so roast nut recipes incorporate a wide range of local nuts and flavors, from salty-sweet cinnamon pecans in the Carolinas and Georgia to fiery chipotle-spiced pistachios in the Southwest and glazed hazelnuts in the Pacific Northwest. Most American nut varieties, like walnuts, pecans, and pine nuts, peak in the fall, and their long shelf life made them protein-rich winter staples; though today we rely far less on local harvests, nuts are still associated with winter, and their toasty flavors evoke a cozy warmth as the days grow colder. These were served with the Thanksgiving meal until around the 1920s, according to Cathy K. Kaufman in the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, when the pre-meal "cocktail hour" became popular and nuts became companions to drinks before the big event.

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Pumpkin soup with brown butter and thyme. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Of course, no Thanksgiving is complete without at least a few pumpkin dishes. One in particular—pumpkin soup—carries a complex story. The pumpkin is native to North America and has been a staple across the continent for millennia. When contact between Native Americans and Europeans began, foods (along with people, goods, foods, plants, animals, viruses, and insects) moved between the Atlantic coasts of North America, Europe, and West Africa in what became known as the Columbian Exchange.

According to historian Charles Mann's wide-ranging and enlightening 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Africans, like Europeans, rapidly adopted the American pumpkin alongside local versions, and it features prominently in many West African cuisines: the pumpkin and sweet potato soups we know in the US today, many of which incorporate peanuts or peanut butter as well as chicken stock, reflect the influence of spicy peanut stews and soups that originated in Mali, Senegal, Ghana, and other parts of West Africa (Dorinda Hafner's A Taste of Africa offers several recipes). African women who were enslaved and forced to work as cooks on Southern plantations adapted the recipes they knew to the ingredients they had in ingenious ways. Their influence, passed down through the generations, is a huge part of the South's culinary heritage—especially in South Carolina and Georgia, where pumpkin soup is often paired with collard greens and cornbread.

Sweet potatoes are often substituted for pumpkins in Thanksgiving dishes, especially in the South. Like other potatoes, they are native to the Americas and spread around the world with the Columbian Exchange. According to Mann, Columbus himself encountered the sweet potato on his first voyage. He brought it back to Spain (along with gold, parrots, and at least ten kidnapped Taino people), and it spread across the Spanish empire all the way to Manila in the Philippines. There, around 1590, a Chinese merchant named Chen Zhenlong encountered it, loved the taste, and smuggled the plant past Spanish customs agents and into China. The sweet potato arrived just in time to inspire thanks among the people of Fujian, where it became a lifesaving food source during several decades of famine and war. The sweet potato should not be confused with the yam, which is a similar tuber native to Africa; as with the pumpkin, Africans kidnapped to the New World reached for ingredients similar to what they knew. The sweet potato remains a key ingredient in African American cuisine to this day, and its presence on the Thanksgiving table is a reminder that not all new Americans came to this country willingly.

Indeed, the history of slavery is tied up with the history of Thanksgiving in another way: in 1863, "in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity," President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national "day of Thanksgiving and Praise." (Although the holiday had long been celebrated in late autumn, the exact date was determined by each state governor, and, as Robert Moss notes, many in the South viewed it as a "Yankee abolitionist holiday."

The menu itself sometimes evokes the culinary fashions of the nineteenth century. Turtle soup, for example, is a dish of French origin that was a must-have item at dinner parties, presidential inaugurations, and upscale restaurants from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, until it fell from favor in the early part of the twentieth century. This may have been because it was so difficult to prepare: an 1881 recipe instructs cooks to butcher a 120-pound turtle and cook it in a long, multi-day process with "40 pounce of leg of beef and knuckles of veal, 4 old hens," and "one bottle of old Madeira," among many other ingredients. The introduction of canned soup and a scarcity of turtle meat eventually eroded its popularity. Turtle soup lives on in New Orleans, though, where a hearty, spicy Creole version is still served at revered culinary institutions like Commander's Palace. Today, many turtle species are endangered and turtle meat can be difficult to procure outside New Orleans, so "mock turtle soup," usually made with veal, is a common substitute.

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Classic deviled eggs. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The nineteenth century also brought about the idea of hors d'oeuvres, part of a widespread shift from traditional English and French ways of eating, in which food was mostly all served at once, to dining à la Russe, with a serving order of courses roughly similar to the way formal meals are served in the US today, starting with appetizers and soups (according to food linguist Dan Jurafsky). One popular Thanksgiving starter, deviled eggs, took the form we currently know around the same period, though they've been around in other forms for thousands of years. The dish is thought to have originated in ancient Rome; a Roman recipe by one Apicus, quoted by Laura Schumm, called for "poached eggs to be dressed with soaked pine nuts, lovage (an herb of the parsley family with an anise, celery flavor), pepper, honey, vinegar and broth." Versions of it appeared in cookbooks across Europe throughout the Middle Ages, Schumm notes, "often filled with raisins, cheese and herbs such as marjoram, parsley and mint and then fried in oil and either topped with a sauce of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and raisins with verjuice (a tart juice made from unripe fruits) or powdered with sugar and served hot."

Because the dish was so widespread around Europe (including what's now Germany, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Romania, and the Netherlands), it's hard to say which immigrant groups brought it to the Americas; we do know, though, that the verb "devilling" (meaning to make food spicy, surely a reference to the heat of hell) was in use in England by the early nineteenth century, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. While the spicy, mayonnaise-enriched deviled eggs we enjoy today were a favorite at celebrations around the nineteenth-century United States, the name was often changed to "stuffed eggs" or "dressed eggs" to avoid offending anyone at church picnics. Today they are usually flavored with mayonnaise and mustard, but it's easy to customize the yolks with herbs, spices, and more—check out some of the Food Lab's variations and hacks here.

In 1939 Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the controversial decision to change the holiday to the second-to-last Thursday in November, at the urging of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, which argued that extending the holiday shopping season would help the economy. Postwar innovations in food technology led to the popularity of starters like fruit cocktail and consomme, often purchased in cans. Though Americans' love for canned food has now largely been eclipsed by new methods that allow us to enjoy fresh fruit year-round, the canned cranberry sauce still found on Thanksgiving tables around the country is a reminder of this era.

This year, as you greet guests with seasonal snacks and sit down to the first course of an elaborate holiday meal, take a moment to remember the strange and surprising history of your family's Thanksgiving starters. Though the darker sides of American history aren't always easy to swallow, the diverse and often ancient roots of this country's cuisine are well worth knowing.