For many Americans, Thanksgiving is all about spending time with family and giving thanks for what we have. It’s also all about eating and nothing says Thanksgiving like gorging on a feast of classic foods like turkey, gravy, stuffing, veggies and pie.
The Americans have been doing it since November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians came together at Plymouth for a harvest celebration… Although the menu wasn’t quite the same as it is today. The ‘first Thanksgiving’ served dishes like roast deer, fish, cornmeal porridge sweetened with molasses, and fruits and vegetables such as onions, beans and berries.
But what do Americans eat today? From the beloved roast turkey to pumpkin pies, here are the most beloved Thanksgiving foods in the United States.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, once said: “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
Today, most Americans live up to Hamilton’s love of turkey, and a roast turkey is the classic centrepiece of Thanksgiving feasts across the country.
It’s big enough to feed the whole family and delicious too, with many different ways to prepare the turkey. While most Americans usually stuff and bake it in the oven, some families like to slow cook it on a barbecue, especially in the South.
You can sweet glaze it, butter baste it, or even go all out with the legendary turducken. Originating from Louisiana, this Thanksgiving dish is made with a duck stuffed in a chicken stuffed in a turkey, with a different type of stuffing in each layer. Now that’s a meal.
While Americans love turkey today, it hasn’t always been part of Thanksgiving dinners. The eye-witness accounts of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 don’t mention turkey, but they do mention the Pilgrims preparing wildfowl for the meal, which could have meant ducks, geese or turkey.
Colonist William Bradford did write of hunting for wild turkeys in his journals in 1621, and turkey quickly became the Thanksgiving food of choice in America ever since Abraham Lincoln declared the day a national holiday in 1863.
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Stuffing and dressing
Stuffing or dressing? Both are delicious elements of a Thanksgiving feast, but what’s the difference? Stuffing is cooked inside of the turkey, while dressing is cooked in a baking dish and served separately. Nowadays, the distinction is less strict and both terms are used no matter where or how you cook the dressing or stuffing.
A basic stuffing is made from a baked mix of bread, vegetables, fruit and nuts. We love raisins, dried cranberries, chopped nuts and diced apples in our dressings and stuffings.
If you’re after an old-fashioned, Southern-style dressing, go for a blend of cornbread, soft breadcrumbs, chopped vegetables and herbs. Sausage stuffings are the star of the show in the east, sourdough and apple stuffing is loved in the west, while oyster stuffings are common in New England and the Gulf states. Try them all and choose your favourite!
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This quintessential Thanksgiving side dish is just as important as the turkey. A good gravy should be simple, thick and flavourful and let the turkey shine – and there are a lot of strong opinions in the US on what makes a good gravy.
You’ll find everything from sage gravy to creamy gravy to red chili gravy in New Mexico. Head to the South and you’ll even find a unique recipe that adds sliced or crumbled hard-boiled eggs to the gravy.
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You can’t have a Thanksgiving feast without cranberry sauce. It originated with the first pilgrims who learnt about cranberries from the Native Americans and gathered them at this festive time of year.
Although it’s a simple sauce, there are also many variations, with some preferring their cranberry sauce out of a can or jar, and others brewing their own sauce at home.
You can add spices, liqueur or citrus peel (common in the Northeast), while cranberry salads are also one of the popular Thanksgiving side dishes in the Midwest and South. However you like it, cranberries are always the perfect complement to your roast turkey or ham.
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What would a Thanksgiving feast be without mashed potatoes? Whether you soak them in gravy, drench them in butter or jazz them up with garlic or onions, mashed potatoes are always a hit on Thanksgiving.
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There’s always room for those soft and buttery dinner rolls. As one of the most reliable Thanksgiving appetizers, everyone loves getting a fluffy, flaky roll to wipe your plate clean, or even pile up with your favourite sauces and toppings. Yum!
Yams and sweet potatoes
Of all the most popular Thanksgiving foods, yams and sweet potatoes have got to be one of the all-time favourites. For centuries, they’ve been eaten across the country during harvest festivals. Since Thanksgiving falls at harvest time, they’re the perfect root vegetable to add to a festive feast.
You can mash them, grill them, roast them, or even make a casserole or pie with your favourite root veg. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ve got to try them with marshmallows.
This beloved Thanksgiving side dish is made by roasting and mashing sweet potatoes or yams, then adding butter and cinnamon, topped with marshmallows. Stick it back in the oven and wait for the marshmallows to brown on top, and you’ve got a good old American Thanksgiving specialty.
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Macaroni and cheese
Whether you bake it or make it fresh on the stovetop, we love mac and cheese all year round. But it gets even better at Thanksgiving, especially in the South. Here you’ll find a steaming dish of mac and cheese right next to the roast turkey and mashed potatoes. Don’t miss out!
Pies, glorious pies
Pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, cherry pie, chess pie, sugar cream pie, Derby Pie, Jeff Davis pie, Concord grape pie…. Need we go on? Of all the Thanksgiving desserts, pies are the sweet star of the feast. It doesn’t matter which pie you prefer, as long as you get to taste one of these sugary treats.
Pumpkin pie is the darling of Thanksgiving desserts, made with freshly harvested pumpkins, fragrant spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and whipped cream on top. It’s got a long history as the frontrunner of Thanksgiving pies, with records showing pumpkin pie to be part of Thanksgiving celebrations as far back as the early 17th-century.
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Depending on where you are, apple pie comes a close second, made with sweet apples and cinnamon, and dished up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
You also can’t forget pecan pie, another star ingredient harvested at this time of year. The locals sweeten this custardy pie with maple syrup, and you’ll also find pecans in salads, stuffings and roasts.
The regional classics
Then there’s the chocolate and bourbon flavours of Derby pie, a Kentucky delicacy, the rich bourbon creaminess of Jess Davis pie, and the vanilla and cornmeal custard filling of Chess pie, a traditional New England recipe. If you’re looking for something simple and sweet, go for Indiana’s sugar cream pie, or if you love a fruity flavour, try the inky purple Concord grape pie, an emblem of harvest time in New York state.
If you’re looking for traditional Thanksgiving foods in New England, be sure to try Indian pudding. This thick cornmeal porridge is sweetened with molasses and raisins and spiced with ginger and cinnamon – the ultimate comfort dessert on a chilly Thanksgiving day. It’s also got a history dating back 200 years, and while it may not look as pretty as the classic pies, it’s just as hearty and delicious.
What are your all-time favourite Thanksgiving foods? Let us know in the comments below!