Traditional Thanksgiving Recipes – Origins and Inspirations

Traditional Thanksgiving Recipes – Origins and Inspirations

Get prepared for the biggest cooking day of the year. Learn the origins of Thanksgiving recipes and be inspired by these traditions.

Thanksgiving dinner table

What comes to mind when you think about Thanksgiving? The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Black Friday sales? Sure. But you’ll almost certainly think about food first – we definitely do. It’s the biggest cooking day of the year for many of the millions of people who celebrate it in the USA. Tables heave with decadent seasonal food, and although every family follows their own traditions, there are some foods that just scream Thanksgiving. We’ve never had the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we wanted to find out more about these traditions and find some classic Thanksgiving recipes. Some of the origins may surprise you.

The Star of the Show

Poached and Butter Basted Turkey Breast by Nessa Robins
Roast turkey – bronze, moist and gleaming – is the traditional centrepiece of Thanksgiving dinner, but this wasn’t the case at the first Thanksgiving. Venison and waterfowl such as duck or goose were most likely part of that meal. So why is turkey so common now? You have Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for that. Sarah campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, and even wrote to Abraham Lincoln about it.

Her description of the feast in her book Northwood; A Tale Of New England isn’t a million miles away from today’s celebration, and it’s clear that the turkey was the star of the show: “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting.”

While roasting is obviously traditional, the slightly more bonkers (and definitely more dangerous) method of deep frying the whole bird is growing in popularity.  We’re big fans of poaching the turkey, a technique that helps keep the meat perfectly moist. If you have a whole turkey, remove, debone and stuff the legs to roast separately, or simply buy a turkey breast for a fuss-free approach.

And All the Trimmings…

Green beans

Missing from Sarah’s description are staples of the modern Thanksgiving celebration, such as candied sweet potato and green bean casserole. Growing up in Ireland, we were fascinated by these dishes. These were things we only ever saw on the television. We were never quite sure what they were, or what the point of them was, but they were always part of the tradition. Topping sweet potato with marshmallows seems like more of a modern phenomenon to us, but it dates all the way back to 1917 when a marshmallow company featured it in a booklet of recipes to promote marshmallows as an ingredient.

Green bean casserole, now a very common Thanksgiving recipe, is essentially green beans mixed with seasoned milk and condensed soup and topped with fried onions, came about in a similar way.  It’s a Campbell’s Soup invention, created to make use of ingredients that were readily available in home kitchens in the 1950s. Tradition or not, it’s probably not going to be making an appearance in our kitchen anytime soon.

Of course, green bean casserole and candied sweet potatoes are only the beginning when it comes to the trimmings. Thanksgiving dinner is the ultimate carb-lover’s dream. Side dishes like mashed potatoes and dinner rolls are to be expected, but the stuffing (or dressing) is where the real magic happens. In reality, the possibilities are endless when it comes to stuffing. Sage and onion is a classic combination, and sausage meat stuffing is always delicious, but Southerners, unsurprisingly, seem to favour cornbread dressing. And it’s in the South that we found our biggest Thanksgiving surprise: Mac and cheese.

Serving turkey with mac and cheese may seem a little strange, but I’d like reiterate that people put marshmallows on top of sweet potato. Mac and cheese with turkey is practically mundane in comparison! Although it’s more common in the South, it’s definitely going the way of deep-fried turkey in terms of popularity. We’re on the fence with this one, but you can generally never go wrong with cheese.

To Finish

Pumpkin and Coconut Cake by Karen Austin
Pumpkin and Coconut Cake by Karen Austin

Of course no celebration would be complete without dessert, and Thanksgiving is no exception. Since pumpkin is in season, it’s no surprise that it dominates this course. Thanksgiving may not be widely celebrated in this part of the world, but we’ve come across an increasing number of people on the hunt for canned pumpkin, keen to give the traditional pumpkin pie a go. Pumpkin is so versatile though that you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to dessert. Stick it in a cheesecake, bake some cookies or use it as an alternative to carrots in a moreish, moist cake.

Our biggest discovery, though, is something that should come as no surprise. Thanksgiving has always been, and remains, a meal that is designed to be shared between family and friends. These are dishes that can be served family style, allowing you to create your own elegant plate, or to pile on the mac and cheese and stuffing to create the ultimate carb-fest.  Ultimately, anything goes, and that’s just fine with us.

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