There's more to it than just turkey.
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Here’s something to chew on: There’s more to the classic Thanksgiving dinner than meets the mouth.
It’s hard to concern yourself with food history when there’s a delicious array of dishes laid out for your gorging pleasure, but you might be interested to know that some of the flavors you enjoy on Thanksgiving come directly from Medieval Europe—or even 2nd-century Rome. The history of your food isn’t straightforward. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into.
When we partake in a Thanksgiving feast, we’re not enjoying American food so much as a fantastic melting pot of old European cooking techniques and New World culinary riches. We’re looking at foods that were once so new and exciting that they were sent back across the Atlantic on ships—foods shrouded in mythology, believed to be aphrodisiacs, and sought after by the rich and famous.
The turkey is a New World bird, but if you think the colonists were strangers to its succulent meat before setting sail in the Mayflower, think again. Spanish conquistadors encountered the bird as many as a hundred years before Plymouth was founded, shipping it back to Spain where everyone just gobbled it up.
To the delight of peacocks everywhere (we assume), turkey soon replaced stringy peacock meat at feasting tables, then spread to ordinary homes throughout western Europe. The Pilgrims may have been eating wild turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but they probably cooked it the same way they had back in Europe.
The bottom line? This particular New World food probably wasn’t new to the Pilgrims. We hate to call fowl, but Squanto introducing the Pilgrims to turkey? Probably just a myth.
Everyone has a personal preference when it comes to cranberry sauce. Whether it’s the jellied canned version, the classic berries-boiled-with-sugar-and-water kind, or a more complex chutney, we can all agree that it goes great with turkey.
Not to get bogged down in details, but it turns out this type of flavor pairing is positively medieval. The Pilgrims are not likely to have eaten cranberry sauce at the first Thanksgiving due to a scarcity of sugar, but when the British later brought honeybees to North America, colonists were able to sweeten cranberries with honey.
Tart fruit sauce with wild fowl was a pairing that had been popular in the Old World for quite some time, and one that we still enjoy today. That’s right, Game of Thrones fans, you’re eating just like Tyrion Lannister.
Stuffing has a very short lifespan at this author’s Thanksgiving dinners. The bready, birdy mixture of deliciousness makes it through a prolonged meal, maybe a post-feast sandwich or two, but soon all that’s left is crumbs.
In contrast, humans have been stuffing animal cavities with grains, nuts, herbs, fruits, veggies, and organ meat since at least the 2nd century, when stuffing recipes first appeared in a cookbook by Roman gourmet Apicius. That’s a long lifespan, indeed.
Ah, the classic sweet potato casserole, topped with marshmallows or brown sugar. Love it or hate it, this dish appears on many dining room tables come Thanksgiving meal time.
What you may not know is that in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, the sweet potato was considered a powerful aphrodisiac. For that reason, it’s been suggested that King Henry VIII ate the root vegetable in excess.
It’s true the sweet potato hails from the Americas, but it seems the Pilgrims had no access to the vegetable. It was, however, brought to Europe by another well-known historical figure: Christopher Columbus.
Sweet potatoes originated in Peru, but had spread throughout Central and South America by the time of Columbus’s arrival. The explorer shipped them back to Spain, where they were especially popular with the upper class.
This article was originally published on 11/27/14.
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