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Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays in the United States, commemorating the fall harvest and kicking off the holiday season with a feast to acknowledge our appreciation for everything we have. The modern Thanksgiving celebration’s secular nature makes it a holiday all Americans can enjoy.
Though today’s traditional Thanksgiving feast is a departure from the food the Wampanoags and Pilgrims shared at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, the dishes Americans enjoy during Thanksgiving dinner are still all foods native to the Americas or introduced by the natives as a new food source to Europeans after their arrival in the New World. The symbol of the cornucopia represents abundance and plenty, overflowing with fruit and nuts, and has come to represent Thanksgiving.
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While the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving comes from a ceremony in the 1620s, religious celebrations of thanksgiving have been around since the days of the Old Testament. English, French, and Spanish settlers to the New World brought these religious traditions and combined them with the harvest celebrations of the Native Americans. In the classic story of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower did not have enough food to survive and were not skilled in survival, and the native Wampanoag tribe helped them get settled. They gave the colonists seeds, showed them which plants were edible, and taught them how to fish. After a particularly good harvest, the Pilgrims had a three-day feast, which they shared with the Wampanoag people.
The foods served at early Thanksgiving feasts are not known for certain, but they likely included some type of poultry with stuffing, seafood, and fall vegetables like corn, and squash.
Today, Thanksgiving traditions vary by family and region, but the standard ingredients are mostly indigenous to the Americas. The main dish is normally roasted turkey with stuffing, and sides of mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, squash, cranberry sauce, and bread. The most popular desserts are apple pie, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie.
Some more recent immigrants have incorporated food from their own culture into the feast, evolving the holiday while maintaining its essence. For example, Southern specialties like macaroni and cheese have also made their way into the Thanksgiving feasts, primarily in the South, while Scandinavian dishes like lefse and lutefisk have been incorporated into the Thanksgiving feasts of the far north.
Just as the first Thanksgiving celebrations honored community by sharing food among friends and family while acknowledging gratefulness for the food, today’s Thanksgiving celebrations also focus on community. Friends and family gather together to enjoy a communal meal. Canned food drives and meals for charity are an important part of the Thanksgiving tradition.
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Turkeys were so prevalent around the colonies that founding father Benjamin Franklin suggested the wild turkey as the national bird. Thanksgiving celebrations in New England in the nineteenth century included shooting contests and raffles, all revolving around turkeys. While other birds, like duck, goose, and chicken, were probably eaten during the feast, the turkey became so associated with Thanksgiving Day that it is sometimes referred to as Turkey Day.
Turkeys are stuffed and roasted over several hours, seasoned with sage, poultry seasonings, and lemon, and filled with stuffing. In recent years, deep fried turkey has become very popular in much of the United States. Turkey is mainly served at Thanksgiving and Christmas time, because of its hours of preparation and roasting. In 2009, the United States produced 247 million turkeys, for an average of 13.3 pounds consumed per person in that year. Minnesota is by far the largest producer of turkeys in the United States, followed by North Carolina.
In 1947, US President Harry Truman began a tradition that has carried on in the White House ever since. In the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, the President of the United States is presented with a turkey. The tradition evolved so that the presented turkey is officially pardoned, and will not be slaughtered, and will live out a full life.
A recent innovation on the Thanksgiving feast is a new poultry dish that has become a popular variation on the turkey. Called turducken (a portmanteau for the three meats included), it is a turkey stuffed with a duck, which is stuffed with a chicken or a hen. A layer of stuffing is put between the meats, and is sometimes a different type of stuffing for each bird.
Turkeys are filled with a mixture of bread and seasonings, known as stuffing or dressing. The two terms may differentiate between stuffing that is actually placed inside the turkey, and dressing, which is cooked separately, though it may also be attributed to regional dialects, as dressing is more commonly heard in the South.
The early Thanksgiving celebrations probably featured poultry stuffed with oats, herbs, and onions. Today stuffing is made from breadcrumbs or cubes of bread, which are softened with eggs and seasonings like sage, onions, celery, and sometimes apples, nuts, raisins, or even sausage. In the South, dressing usually uses cornbread, rather than the white breadcrumbs used in the rest of the country.
Corn and squash are two of the most authentic Thanksgiving sides, which were probably served at the table shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. Corn at Thanksgiving dinner is usually removed from the cob, and sweetened or creamed. Squash, especially pumpkin, usually finds its way into the Thanksgiving meal, especially into pumpkin pie.
Both regular white potatoes and sweet potatoes were not available in the colonies at the time of the first Thanksgiving, but soon became an important part of the feast. Regular potatoes are mashed and mixed with garlic, pepper, and butter or cream to make them smooth and creamy. Mashed potatoes are served with gravy, which is often poured over the turkey and stuffing.
Sweet potatoes can be served as a dessert, but are also served as a side dish during dinner. Sweet potato casserole is a sweet dish made from sliced sweet potatoes, seasoned with brown sugar, cinnamon, butter and citrus juice, baked in a casserole dish, and often topped with marshmallows.
Green bean casserole has become a quintessential part of the Thanksgiving feast. Created by the Campbell Soup Company in 1955, the dish has been marketed well to become a simple all-American dish. Green beans and cream of mushroom soup are combined in a casserole dish, and topped with crunchy French fried onions, and baked.
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Cranberries are native to New England and may have even been included in the original Thanksgiving meal, perhaps in some of the native-influenced dishes. Cranberry sauce, however, was not used until about fifty years later, when the settlers boiled cranberries in sugar water to create a sweeter sauce to provide the right amount of tart contrast to the meal. Cranberry sauce today is often made into gelatin, and sometimes formed into gelatin salad, mixed with other fruits, nuts, or even celery.
Even after the plentiful dinner of turkey and all its sides, the feast is not over until after dessert. Thanksgiving dinner is often eaten early, as an afternoon meal, in order to allow more time to eat, as well as allow room for dessert. The favorite types of desserts enjoyed after Thanksgiving dinner include apple pie, pumpkin pie, and sweet potato pie.
Apples are native and abundant in many parts of the United States, and are often in season around the time of the harvest. Apple pies, while they originated in France, are considered one of the most American desserts. Apple slices are seasoned with a sweet combination of sugar and spices, and baked in a top and bottom crust, though many alternatives exist.
Pumpkins are also indigenous to the Americas, and symbolize the fall season as an essential part of autumn. Pumpkin pie is made from puréed pumpkin, mixed with milk, eggs, sugar and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. This mixture is poured into a pie crust and baked, and is usually topped with whipped cream just before serving.
Sweet potato pie is very similar to pumpkin pie, cooked much in the same way. Though sweet potatoes are native to the Caribbean, not the United States, sweet potato pie is a specialty of the South, and can be found year-round in that region.
With all the food prepared for the grand Thanksgiving feast, the leftovers have become just as important as the feast itself. As the Pilgrims and natives feasted for several days, so do many Americans, as they enjoy the leftovers of their feast for the following days. One of the best ways to use these leftovers is to make a Thanksgiving sandwich. White bread is topped with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce, to create a great combination. These sandwiches are often served open-faced, that is with no top slice of bread (or two side-by-side slices, both topped with the above ingredients), with gravy poured over the top. A knife and fork are usually needed to enjoy this post-Thanksgiving meal.