Why We Eat What We Do at Thanksgiving

Food PR expert Mary Barber joins Tim to tell the origin stories behind our Thanksgiving foods, from regional favorites, to some items that trace their “roots” back to that first Thanksgiving in 1621. Listen to the story behind your Thanksgiving table.

Next Thursday America will celebrate Thanksgiving marking the official start of the Holiday season. A day of parades, football, food, family…and more food.

History tells us that the first Thanksgiving happened in October or November of 1621. That was when a group of new arrivals to the continent called the Pilgrims hosted an autumn harvest celebration where they hosted the Wampanoag Indians on Plymouth Plantation.

Since then, in various ways, Americans have remembered the event with celebrations of their own.

At the center of those celebrations has been the food.

Today, when we think of Thanksgiving in America, we think of family and friends gathering together around a table where the centerpiece is a turkey with stuffing. Maybe mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries or cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, just to name a few of the dishes.

So, how did those items and others find their way onto millions of American tables every Thanksgiving?

We pondered this question and could think of no better person to ask than Mary Deming Barber. You may remember her from Episode 2 where we talked about the origin story behind the American breakfast of bacon and eggs.

This time, we wanted to get Mary’s thoughts on America’s Thanksgiving menu.

The First Thanksgiving

Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims from the Mayflower, has said that four men went hunting and returned with a good amount of “fowl.” Given the customs of the time, that fowl could have included wild turkeys, duck, and geese.

Winslow mentions venison as well. Turkey was likely not the centerpiece of the meal. According to historians, both the English and the Wampanoag would stuff birds and fish with herbs, onions or in the case of the English, oats. Not bread.

It may have been the Wampanoag who introduced cranberries, which were native to the area. According to records, the first mention of consumption of a “berry with sugar for a sauce to eat with meat” was 50 years later, sometime around 1671.

Potatoes were generally not included in the English diet or the American Indian diet to this point.

Let’s go back to Winslow’s account:

He said that they had access to lobsters and eels and mussels. He said the American Indians often provided oysters, along with herbs, grapes, strawberries, gooseberries, and plums.

Agricultural experts say that around that time, they hay have had cultivated beans, dried berries, cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts. Turnips, carrots, corn, thanks to the American Indians, which was new to the English.

Pumpkin may have been included, but probably not pie. Historians speculate that some of the items we now associate with Thanksgiving really didn’t arrive until 200 years alter during the Victorian era.

At that same time, a woman emerged who probably had more to do with the Thanksgiving traditions we know today than anyone else. We could probably do an entire podcast episode just about her and her many accomplishments beyond Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a women’s magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, was a trendsetter for her time. She was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event.

She is the one who petitioned 13 presidents her idea for an annual Thanksgiving Holiday. President Lincoln took her up on it as a way to unite the country during the Civil War.

As part of her campaign, Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in her magazine. She also published about 12 cookbooks. Much of what we think of when we think of Thanksgiving we owe to Sarah Josepha Hale.

Norman Rockwell: Freedom from Want

Let’s fast forward to what may be best described as the Modern Era of Thanksgiving and an iconic painting that may have captured its arrival the best.

In 1943, the Saturday Evening Post cover featured a now iconic painting from Normal Rockwell called “Freedom from Want.”

If featured a family around their Thanksgiving table with the large turkey at the center.
The painting was inspired by the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union Address.

The address was known as the Four Freedoms Speech, because Roosevelt proposed four freedoms that everyone in the world should possess.

Mary’s Cranberry-Tangerine Relish Recipe

  • 2 large tangerines
  • 3 c cranberries
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 1/2 c chopped walnuts

Cut one tangerine with peel into 6 wedges. Discard seeds. Add to food processor; coarsely chop using on/off turns. Add cranberries; coarsely chop using on/off turns. Transfer to large bowl. Peel remaining tangerine and chop coarsely, discarding seeds. Add to cranberries. Add sugar and toss well. Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Mix nuts into relish just before serving.


About this Episode’s Guest Mary Barber

Mary Deming Barber, APR, Fellow PRSA, is president of The Barber Group, a strategic communications consultancy, and Food PR & Communications, where her food efforts are focused along with a team of food public relations professionals.

During her 40-year career, she has led award-winning programs for a wide range of food commodity boards, international brands and restaurants while employed by agencies and as an entrepreneur from her home bases throughout the West.

She often tells friends she’s worked with nearly every center-of-the-plate item there is, and more. Mary’s comfortable in the kitchen with chefs, or out in the field with farmers and ranchers. She thrives on spotting trends that fit client goals and turning those trends into programs that are as much leading-edge as they are successful. Mary also enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, either with her family or unsuspecting friends. In 2002, she published a cookbook celebrating three generations of family recipes, preserving the importance of food in her family gatherings.
Mary is well known nationally for her leadership and service in the International Foodservice Editorial Council, the Public Relations Society of America, and the Ad2 Division of the American Advertising Federation. She has won numerous awards from various public relations organizations, including two Silver Anvil awards.