The First Thanksgiving

As the days grow shorter and colder and the leaves fall from the trees, it’s time to celebrate the holidays. Thanksgiving has always been my family’s favorite holiday, beating out Christmas by a mile. It was a holiday we could celebrate with our extended family, eat all we wanted, and then collapse in front of the television to watch football. Because my family now is stretched across the country, we tend to hold Thanksgiving whenever we can get three or more of us together at one time, regardless of the month we’re in.


Despite the hardship of finding a fresh turkey in April or whole cranberries in July, which have been problematic for our impromptu celebrations, there are some foods that are essential to the meal. We’ve long ago let go of my aunt’s Pineapple Rice Fluff. It was this odd combination of pineapple, rice, and whipped cream. We could never figure out if it was a main course, a salad, or dessert. But turkey is always front and center, filled with sage stuffing, along with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberries and pumpkin pie.

Which led me to wonder what types of food were on the table of the first Thanksgiving, held in 1621. It was a celebration by the Pilgrims following their first harvest in the new world. The feast lasted for three days, and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The colonists were following a tradition from their home country, of having days of thanksgiving, marking military victories or the end of a drought.


The Pilgrim by Augustus St. Gaudens, 1904

William Bradford and Edward Winslow were two of the Pilgrims who had first-hand knowledge of the foods that appeared on the table in November, 1621. They both list waterfowl, fish, both cod and bass, lobster, clams, wild turkeys, which were in abundance, venison, Indian corn, squash, and pumpkins, which were native to America.


The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914

Turkey still is the traditional centerpiece of the holiday. Over 45 million turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving Day in 2015. Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving Day than on any other day of the year.


The variety of side dishes has expanded to feature regional or cultural heritage.  Southerners, for example, prefer their dressing made from cornbread rather than a white bread sage dressing, perhaps with a bit of andouie sausage thrown in for a Cajun kick. The bread used in other parts of the country may encompass wheat or rye. Other ingredients added to the dressing mix may include oysters, apples, chestnuts, raisins, sausage or the turkey’s giblets.


Southern Dressing


Beyond the variances in stuffing, other side dishes that have been added over the years, depending on which part of the country you’re celebrating, include macaroni and cheese, sauerkraut, collard greens, chitterlings, broccoli casserole, hash browns, and sweet potato pie. The Italian culture has added lasagna to the table. The Jewish faith have introduced kugel (a sweet dessert pudding), while Mexican-Americans prefer arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), mole and tamales stuffed with turkey, corn bread and cider. Cuban Americans add a small roasted pork alongside the turkey, and offer sides of white rice or kidney beans.

While the foods on the table may vary, the sentiment is the same: Time spent with family and friends is something we cherish. And, if you can get a great meal and some football at the same time, so much the better.

How about your family? Do you have any unique side dishes that have become a staple of the Thanksgiving meal?

Incredible Southern Thanksgiving Side Dish Recipes


Becky Lower already celebrated her Thanksgiving this year, many months ago, when her brother was in town. She will, however, be eating turkey and watching football again next Thursday, and hopes that, however you see fit to spend the day, you celebrate with friends and family. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.