When Thanksgiving spread around the country in the mid-19th century, it was in the hope that holiday good feelings would heal the rift between North and South. So, the Thanksgiving menu had a certain amount of can’t-we-all-get-together culinary nationalism to it.
The main course? Turkey, of course, an indigenous American bird. It was well known that Native Americans and the early colonists used cranberries to flavor meat, so you clearly had to serve cranberry sauce with your bird. Americans were renowned pie-eaters in the 19th century, making pie the obvious dessert, and the supreme holiday pie was filled with pumpkin -- another native American ingredient.
As a result, roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie became emphatically tied to the holiday. Until the cranberry juice craze and the discovery that turkey breast is low in fat, quite a few Americans never ate turkey or anything cranberry between one Thanksgiving and the next, and that’s probably still true of pumpkin pie.
Outside the turkey-cranberry-pumpkin pie trinity, though, American Thanksgiving tables have been as varied as the country itself. Each region, even each family, has its own list of traditional dishes without which the holiday menu is unthinkable.
It’s surprising how tenacious these traditions can be. My grandfather insisted on having Boston brown bread, though his great-grandparents had left Massachusetts for New York in the 1780s. His family must not be the only one to feel that way -- brown bread does tend to show up on grocery shelves around the holiday season.
Some of these family dishes would shock anyone from a different tradition. Who would think of serving stewed sauerkraut with the turkey? Quite a few people from German families, such as in the Midwest. Coconut cream pie alongside (or even instead of) pumpkin? That’s purely Southwestern. There are a few isolated areas, such as parts of West Texas, where turkey is even optional -- chicken can substitute for it, possibly because turkeys were once unavailable and chicken simply became the tradition.
Well, Thanksgiving is all about tradition. Families with a strong immigrant heritage may garnish their roast turkey with spaghetti, enchiladas or stir-fried vegetables instead of sweet potatoes and succotash. Lebanese American cooks tend to use their ancestral roast chicken stuffing -- fried lamb, onions and pine nuts -- and may even boil the turkey before roasting it. The Portuguese of New England often start the meal with their traditional kale soup, caldo verde.
The Thanksgiving menu was spread around the country in the 1850s partly by homesick New Englanders bringing their party with them wherever they moved and partly through the efforts of Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of the most influential publication in the country, Godey’s Lady’s Book. She started using her position to promote the idea of Thanksgiving in the 1840s, and by 1860, the custom had spread to nearly all the states. During the Civil War, she persuaded President Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving Day, and the date he chose for it is basically the one we use today.
Hale had fond memories of her family’s bountiful Thanksgivings in Maine, and the holiday menu she publicized is still the norm in New England. One thing that may strike people from other parts of the country is the prominence of plain boiled vegetables: boiled turnips, boiled cabbage, boiled onions.
The South originally accepted Thanksgiving with some reluctance. Until the 19th century, New Englanders had refused to celebrate Christmas on the grounds that there was no scriptural warrant for the Dec. 25 date for the birth of Christ, so Southerners suspected Thanksgiving of being some kind of bogus Yankee imitation of Christmas.
Partly for this reason, and partly because the South has the most vigorous food traditions in the country, Southern Thanksgiving menus tend to be rather distinctive. For instance, it’s common in the South to serve red meat alongside the turkey -- country ham in Maryland, ham or roast beef in Memphis, Tenn.
Corn bread stuffing is also very Southern, though bread or chestnut stuffings from the English tradition are also common in the South. Sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows are as Midwestern as Southern, but if there are pecans involved, you can be sure you’re in Dixie.
Southerners cheerfully throw in dishes with not the remotest New England connection, such as macaroni and cheese, potato salad or ambrosia. Particularly in Texas, pie doesn’t have to be limited to the traditional pumpkin-apple-mincemeat repertoire. Out there, dessert can be lemon chiffon pie or coconut cream pie . . . or even chocolate cake.
In the Midwest, the squash that would probably be boiled and maybe mashed farther east is likely to be stuffed and baked. This is the part of the country where you find the most German and Scandinavian influences. The turkey may come with stewed sauerkraut, dumplings or noodles, and European cakes, custards or strudels may show up alongside the pies.
Oysters were king
In the 19th century, Americans were crazy for oysters, and there was a repertoire of dishes such as oyster stew, pan-fried oysters and scalloped oysters that was known throughout the country. Oysters were particularly associated with the holiday season. Even deep in the Midwest, people would order a barrel of oysters delivered by rail and serve oyster dishes at Thanksgiving (and clear on through Christmas).
In most places, oysters have nearly disappeared from the Thanksgiving table except for the occasional turkey stuffing, but oyster stew, scalloped oysters and the rest are still popular in oyster-producing areas such as the Pacific Northwest (and in Amish and Mennonite communities as far inland as Indiana, because the Amish and Mennonites don’t change their traditions at the drop of a hat).
California, and particularly Los Angeles, has been inundated with newcomers for over a century, and we don’t have the deep-rooted traditions of New England or the South. We do have a few, though. Green salad, for instance; not many of us would serve Jell-O salad alone without a healthful lettuce and tomato salad.
Some families still serve the old-time L.A. relish tray: carrot and celery spears, olives and pickles (such as pickled peppers). This was our local version of the 19th century tradition of serving rare and expensive appetizers, except that around here we featured olives and celery out of local patriotism because we grew our own.
It’s possible to generalize about regional and ethnic versions of the Thanksgiving dinner, but the fact is that Thanksgiving is a family holiday, and its traditions are always family traditions. Even in areas of cultural homogeneity, people may be a little surprised by what their neighbors serve.
These days, all those regional and ethnic lines are blurring as people move around the country and marry outside their cultures. So, more and more families are experiencing holiday shock: “You want to put sausage in the turkey stuffing?” “You put oysters -- seriously, oysters? -- in the stuffing?” It always gets sorted out, and it’s fascinating to see which traditions are more persistent in any given family.
What will Thanksgiving dinner be like in 2109? My guess is it won’t be a complete free-for-all of eclecticism, because families need traditions, and so do countries. I’m not so sure about pumpkin pie, but I’m putting my money on turkey and cranberry.
Additional reporting by Christianne Winthrop, Michael Mao and Raeny Ji.