How History Has Shaped What Food You Put On Your Thanksgiving Table

Whenever you baste a turkey and open up a can of cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, you're upholding the great American tradition of absolutely stuffing yourself with food on the beloved holiday. But while many of us are familiar with the history of the day, few know how our favorite foods came to decorate the family dinner table. Yet some of these Thanksgiving treats undertook incredible journies to get to our homes... and our tummies!


Thanksgiving celebrations have taken place in America in some form or another since the 1500s. But some see the 1621 Thanksgiving feast at the Plymouth Plantation as the inspiration for our modern-day equivalent. And the then-governor of the Plymouth colony, William Bradford, noted that they had "a great store of wild turkeys" around the time of the event. So, in this sense, eating turkey is a historically accurate way to celebrate Thanksgiving!

Mashed potatoes

Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book — and she used her power wisely. She sent "impassioned letters" to President Millard Fillmore, President Franklin Pierce, President James C. Buchanon, and President Abraham Lincoln imploring them to make Thanksgiving a thing. Hale also pushed recipes for dishes that would later become Thanksgiving staples. So when her campaigning finally saw dividends, her recipes for mashed potatoes shot to the top of the list of things we wanted on our Thanksgiving tables.


The Pilgrims didn't open cans of Ocean Spray cranberries to go with their meals. Yet cranberry sauce does have a uniquely American origin. "The Algonquin, Chippewa, and Cree, among others, gathered wild cranberries where they could find them," reported National Geographic. "Cranberries were used for everything from cooking to dyes for textiles to medicines." The British brought over the ability to sweeten the berries in the 1600s. Then, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant asked that all his soldiers be provided with cranberries on Thanksgiving. They've stuck around ever since.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes have been a crop in America for hundreds of years — and recipes for them have popped up since 1796. But candied yams — those marshmallow-topped sweet spuds — are one of the most famous Thanksgiving dishes, too. Though it wasn’t necessarily meant to be that way! In 1917 the marketing team for Angelus Marshmallows devised the dish to help sell more 'mallows!