If you’re like most Americans, your Thanksgiving dinner table will include at least a few basic items — turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the like. But have you ever thought about why we eat those foods on Thanksgiving? Or, for that matter, why turkey is called “turkey”?
In order to answer these hard-hitting questions and maybe even give you some interesting small-talk for the table, here are the stories behind the traditional Thanksgiving foods.
Wild turkeys, which Native Americans called “peru,” were a staple of the locals when the pilgrims arrived in 1620, and were therefore reportedly present on the table at the first Thanksgiving. The birds were eventually taken to Europe, where some mistook them for Turkey’s guinea fowl — and that’s how a turkey came to be called… well, a turkey.
Stuffing has been eaten since the time of the ancient Romans, and maybe even longer than that. And the name? In Europe during the Middle Ages, stuffing was called “farce,” derived from the French word farcir, which means “to stuff.”
Cranberries — dubbed “craneberries” by the first English settlers because the fruit’s flowers resembled the head of a crane — were beloved by Native Americans, who felt the tart red berries had healthful properties and often preserved them with dried meat to ensure they could still be eaten during the long New England winters.
Columbus brought this tasty root vegetable to the New World from the island of St. Thomas, with Virginia growing the first US crop in 1648. Marshmallows weren’t routinely added until the 1920s, but today, many of us can’t imagine a sweet potato casserole without them.
A favorite of the Native Americans, corn is ripe and at its sweetest in November — making it an obvious choice for traditional Thanksgiving tables.
Pumpkin dates back 9,000 years to ancient Mexico, but was cultivated for centuries by Native Americans, who roasted and boiled it. Since pilgrims didn’t have ovens to bake crusts, they probably didn’t have pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving — but it is thought they had a spiced, stewed pumpkin mixture.