A short course on the long history of Thanksgiving foods
Cider was once the national beverage. Later, unfermented, sweet cider would become more common on American tables, but before the mid-1800s, the hard stuff was the drink of choice for Americans - New Englanders most of all. Introduced to North America from Europe, apple trees grew well in the temperate climate, with many New England families pressing cider from their own orchards.
The bird on many Americans' Thanksgiving tables today might be about the only thing that connects our national holiday with the romanticized meal in 1621 shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans and studied by so many generations of American schoolchildren.
Although certain varieties of cranberry grow in parts of Europe, the turkey's most popular dinner companion tells a story of New World cultural exchange. The fruit's name is a legacy of 17th century German settlers in America. Called in medieval England "moss-berry" and other similar terms that allude to the fruit's boggy habitat, English-speakers borrowed their German neighbors' term "kranberee," which refers to the long, cranelike stamens of the plant.
Americans have been stuffing turkeys with oysters for centuries. Now a treat, oysters were once plentiful and for centuries were the most commonly eaten shellfish in America. At home, cooks filled turkeys and other birds with oysters to stretch the pricier fowl. They also made loaves, sauces, pies, soups and stews with the inexpensive protein.
For many, the Thanksgiving meal must include sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The happy marriage of the tuber with caramelized, gooey goodness owes itself to two developments of the 1800s.
In 1917, the Angelus Marshmallows company distributed a recipe booklet that taught Americans how they might use marshmallows. With that, the classic pairing had arrived.
Whether it's served with beans, in risotto or pilaf, as a stuffing or simply steamed, rice has a leading place at our national meal. It also has always had a leading place as an American export crop.
The quintessential pie marries an indigenous American food already familiar to English colonists, thanks to the vegetable's introduction to Europe in the 1500s, with an economical English culinary tradition of filling crust with meat, vegetable or fruit. Colonists cultivated pumpkin from their earliest years in the New World, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes from the 1600s.
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