The Origins of the Thanksgiving Meal

By Aislinn Sanders

As the temperatures drop and snow begins to fall, people are undoubtedly imbued with the classic holiday spirit that comes with this time of year. Thoughts of holiday-specific food and drink, story telling with friends and family, and gift giving invade our minds. Where did our holidays come from and how did our classic meals make it to our plates?

Thanksgiving is a holiday which feels as old as this country and brings with it all kinds of rituals. According to Sidney Mintz, a featured author in Food in the USA: A Reader, “anyone who doubts the value of a melting-pot cuisine should consider Thanksgiving, the one holiday most Americans cherish. In the simplest terms, Thanksgiving is about 240 million people eating the same menu on the same day. We compare notes on how the turkey was cooked, on the flakiness of the pumpkin pie crust, and on the components of the stuffing. It feels good to share the menu with our neighbors” (Mintz 2002, 33). Thanksgiving “expresses and reaffirms values and assumptions about cultural and social unity, about identity and history, about inclusion and exclusion” for those who celebrate (Siskind 2002, 41). However, Thanksgiving as we know it was not practiced until the turn on the 20th century (Ibid., 42). The Thanksgiving stories we are told in school remain American myths.

So, if Thanksgiving traditions have only been practiced for the last 150 years, where does our menu come from? Turkeys were originally domesticated around 2,000 years ago in Mexico and the southwestern United States. It is believed they were brought to Europe from Mexico and reintroduced in the early US colonies. Like the turkey, it took the potato several stops before it became part of American cuisine. Originally domesticated in South America 10,000 years ago, it is believed that the Spanish introduced them to Europe and the European settlers introduced them to the US after settling.

The food which we consider to be quintessentially American, in fact, comes from regions all over the world, furthering the idea of the melting pot meal described by Mintz. As we roll into the holiday season, it is important to remember just how diverse our traditions are and the people who have made them what they are today.

To learn more about the invention of Thanksgiving and other American foods, check out Food in the USA: A Reader (,contains,invention%20of%20thanksgiving%20siskind&offset=0), edited by Carole Counihan, and Becky Haberacker’s article ( for the Smithsonian Insider.