Updated: Nov 5, 2022
If you are new to the USA, it might interest you to know some basic information about the Thanksgiving holiday.
Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, with a special meal shared by family and friends.
How it started
It is generally agreed that Thanksgiving has its origin in the 1621 harvest feast celebrated by the Pilgrims (English colonists) and the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth, in what is known today as Massachusetts. The Pilgrims had had a very difficult time getting acclimated to the New World. By all accounts the preceding winter had been very harsh and 78% of the women in the Pilgrim settlement had perished. At the 1621 harvest feast, there were 22 adult Pilgrim men, 25 children or adolescents and only 4 women left. A successful harvest that year, meant there was a possibility of survival for all of them.
From this information, one can already glean the characteristics of the Thanksgiving celebration. The original feast was brought together by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians; therefore the holiday is celebrated by gathering together with family members, friends and neighbors.
As the original feast, Thanksgiving is celebrated with an abundance of seasonal dishes.
Which dishes are served?
The menu is similar all over the country. There are certainly some regional variety but generally the meal consists of:
Turkey: A symbolic choice because wild turkeys were abundant at the time of the first Thanksgiving feast. Turkey was nevertheless not listed as an item in the original menu. The Wampanoag Indians brought venison and groups of men went fishing and hunting for fowl for the various dishes. Today, Turkey is the central dish in the Thanksgiving table. Traditionally served roasted, but lately whole fried turkey has made an appearance in houses all over the country.
Turkey gravy: a sauce made from the turkey pan drippings.
Stuffing: Originally stuffing was the food cooked inside the cavity of the bird (once the entrails were cleaned out). Depending on how many guests are sharing the meal, stuffing is also prepared and baked along with the turkey (in a different pan). It consists of pieces of bread, chopped vegetables like celery, onion, maybe mushrooms or fennel, some broth (vegetable or chicken), herbs and salt and pepper.
Succotash: If you want to try a more genuine dish, succotash is a vegetable stew introduced by Native Americans in the 17th century. “The name is a somewhat Anglicized spelling of the Narragansett Indian word “msickquatash”, which referred to a simmering pot of corn to which other ingredients were added.” (Tanis, Davis. Yes, Succotash Has a Luxurious Side. New York Times, August 14, 2015). The contemporary succotash contains corn and lima beans to which other vegetables might be added, like zucchini, okra and tomatoes.
Mashed potatoes: Another dish not present in the original feast since potatoes hadn’t been successfully introduced to the USA, it is nonetheless one of the staple dishes on the Thanksgiving table. Often consumed with the turkey gravy.
Green Beans: My own preference would be for either sautéed or roasted green beans, but my mother-in-law preferred it served in a green bean casserole.
Brussels Sprouts: Another vegetable in season, brussels sprouts are often served on Thanksgiving. Other choices are cabbage or, according to Marcy, often served in her native state of Maryland, sauerkraut.
Cranberry sauce: more of a consistency of a jam or a chutney, cranberry sauce is consumed with turkey. Leftover sauce pairs well with pork, ham or yogurt.
Bread rolls, salad: or whatever your family likes to add to meals.
Dessert: Pumpkin pie (more traditional choice), but also sweet potato pie, apple pie, pecan pie or pear tart. Because you might need more than one pie…!
What else should you know about Thanksgiving?
On Thanksgiving Day, guests will gather at the host’s home who will either be responsible for the whole meal or will organize a potluck in which each guest will bring one of the dishes.
In the morning, while some gather in the kitchen prepping and cooking the meal, others will gather to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade (from New York) or whichever city parade is near you. Detroit usually has a parade you can watch in person or on tv.
In the afternoon, people will start watching a football game (not soccer – American football). And here you might ask why is football part of Thanksgiving tradition? Well, it just is! But there is some history: In 1876, just 13 years after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday, there was a football game on Thanksgiving Day between Yale and Princeton universities. Since then, football games have become part of the Thanksgiving tradition.
It is very common, at this point, for some members of the party to stretch themselves on the couch, in front of the tv, to do some “digestion” and snore away while they “watch” the game. After so much food, it really is not very surprising.
Now that you know how to celebrate this holiday, you can plan on inviting around a dozen of your friends to eat and be merry together. Happy Thanksgiving!
If you are curious about a succotash recipe, check this one out:
And here is an interesting article about how today’s Wampanoag Indians feel about that 1621 feast: