Technological advancements and cultural diffusion through cuisine have made it easier for more people to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own style.
Thanksgiving may not have the carols and gifts of Christmas, but what it lacks in festivities it makes up for with food. And though today’s Thanksgiving bears little resemblance to the first harvest celebration of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony, thanks to modern innovations and cultural diffusion through cuisine, the feast we know today continues to be a crowd-pleaser.
Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as an official holiday in 1863, thanks in large part to the persistence of writer Sarah Josepha Hale (of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” fame), who petitioned multiple presidents asking them to set aside a national day of thanks.
Hale, who was also editor of a popular women’s lifestyle magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, often published Thanksgiving recipes similar to those we associate with the holiday today—roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, and even some mashed potato dishes. These foods, combined with a general sense of nostalgia for colonial times, helped shape the modern Thanksgiving feast.
Turkeys and Marshmallows: Thanksgiving Fare Over Time
Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without a turkey centerpiece, but turkey-lovers don’t have to settle for the traditional roasted bird, which is now selectively bred to keep up with consumer demand for cheaper white meat. For the more daring, there’s Cajun deep-fried turkey or the infamous turducken, with roots back to the Middle Ages. Those with more health-conscious palettes may choose to opt for heritage breed turkeys, or even forgo the meat entirely with a vegan feast.
Besides the turkey, side dishes really set the holiday apart. Some foods, like corn and stuffing, stem from the original feast, but many others are the result of a variety of traditions and cultures that have mixed and changed over time. For example, mashed potatoes didn’t enter the scene until the late 19th century, when Scottish and Irish immigrants came to the United States, bringing potatoes with them.
For those who like their sweet potatoes a little extra sweet and topped with marshmallows, the French are to thank. Marshmallows were originally a handmade luxury, developed by beating egg whites and sugar with the roots of the marshmallow plant. Gelatin eventually took the place of marshmallow root, and, in 1917, the treat was popular enough for the Angelus Marshmallows company to distribute a booklet of recipes to American consumers with culinary suggestions, including marshmallows with sweet potatoes.
Modern Innovations Making Thanksgiving Easier
While many side dishes are the result of cuisines mixing, others are entirely modern inventions—and some were even accidental. In 1949, baker and volunteer fireman Joe Gregor accidently stumbled upon a way to meet consumer demand for fresh rolls without the time-consuming hassle of baking them from scratch. After producing a batch of “ruined” half-baked rolls, Gregor left to respond to a fire alarm, leaving the rolls in the oven. When he returned, he reheated the rolls and realized that he had created what we now know as “brown and serve rolls.”
The largest technological advances are related to how we prepare and store food. Unlike early revelers, many of today’s home cooks have a wealth of resources when it comes to preparing the famous bird, most notably the Butterball Turkey Hotline. Part marketing, part advice line, the hotline debuted in 1981, and has been helping cooks across the nation figure out how to properly thaw a frozen turkey one call or text at a time.
Furthermore, 79 percent of Americans agree that leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving. Though saving food for future consumption dates back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, it wasn’t until the early-to-mid-1900s that American consumers could take advantage of modern food storage technology. From refrigerators to Tupperware to microwaves, all of these innovations kept food fresh longer, allowing people to safely consume Thanksgiving treats long after the official holiday passed.
The exchange of cultures and ideas has contributed to the Thanksgiving recipes that we love—from tamales to sweet tea to funeral potatoes to gumbo to lasagna to deviled eggs—and technology has made it easier for more people to enjoy the meal. Family and friends can easily gather together, and for those who prefer to stay at home, online message boards allow people to share their meal with others in the community. Whether you opt for a home-cooked spread, go out to eat, or purchase a luxury mail-order meal, your Thanksgiving celebration will reflect a mixture of old and new, of time-honored traditions and present-day conveniences.