A Thanksgiving Dinner Timeline: Thanksgiving Through the Years

From swan (yes, that's right - we said swan) to Jell-O salad to goat cheese mashed potatoes, our Thanksgiving menus have evolved in the last 400 years. Here are a few years from the history books to take a look at how our Thanksgiving food has changed.

The First Thanksgiving


Passenger Pigeons--illustrations by cotinis via Flickr


The first Thanksgiving had all of the items that were accessible to the native population at the time. According to the surviving documents, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people held a harvest celebration that included a three day feast. Here's what they likely shared:

Birds (boiled, roasted or both), including waterfowl like goose, duck and swan, and wildfowl like turkeys and the once abundant, but now-extinct passenger pigeons. Other meat dishes probably included venison, fish, eels and shellfish. For side dishes, the colonists and Native American feasters also ate stuffing (possibly made of onions, herbs and chestnuts), pottage made from broth of boiled meat, corn bread and corn porridge, plus squashes, beans, turnips, carrots, onions and garlic from gardens. Chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts from the forest were probably also eaten. 

Nineteenth Century Thanksgivings


In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a popular novel that included a description of a New England Thanksgiving dinner. Staples like turkey, gravy, vegetables and cranberry sauce would go on to form the traditional dinner. Hale would later campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday. The menu:

The main attraction was meat: turkey, beef sirloin, leg of pork and joint of mutton. Gravy to the side with vegetables, pickles and preserves, cheese and cranberry sauce. Sweets included pie, cake and custard.


Yvonne via Twenty20


President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a nationwide holiday.


During the Grover Cleveland administration, the White House Cook Book was published to "fully represents the progress and present perfection of the culinary art than any previous work." Here's what Thanksgiving dinner may have looked like in 1887 :

Dinner opened with appetizers, including oysters on half shell, cream of chicken soup and fried smelts with sauce tartare. Main dinner consisting of roast turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, baked squash, boiled onions, parsnip fritters, olives, chicken salad, venison pastry and cheese. Dessert varieties were pumpkin pie, mince pie, charlotte russe, almond ice cream, lemon jelly, hickory nut cake, fruits and coffee.

Mid-Century Thanksgiving Menus


Soldiers need to celebrate Thanksgiving too. Here's the menu for the Naval Training Station's 1945 Thanksgiving Dinner:

Begin with a fruit cup, mixed sweet pickles and stuffed celery. Next, the hearty dinner of roast young tom turkey, giblet gravy, sausage stuffing, cranberry sauce, whipped Irish potatoes, garden green peas, sliced tomatoes, bread, hot rolls and butter. Fruit cake and ice cream for something sweet and wash it down with a beverage.


Thanksgiving menus became more creative in the years after World War Two. Check out this spread from 1961:

Open the dinner with clear mushroom soup and then get straight to the roast turkey with sausage-walnut stuffing. On the side there is giblet gravy, cranberry-pear relish, chantilly potatoes, onion-stuffed onions[!], whole green beans, glazed turnip wedges, celery hearts, ripe and green olives and dinner rolls. Round it all off with two-layered pumpkin-mince pie, coffee and fruits and shelled nuts.

Over the years, ingenuity blossomed in the kitchen in both wonderful and horrifying ways. (Jell-O salad anyone?)

A Modern Foodie Thanksgiving

Charity Hestead via Twenty20


For a sampling of the modern foodie Thanksgiving here are the barefoot contessa's and Martha Stewart's menus:

Ina Garten's Thanksgiving Menu consists of roast turkey and gravy with onions and sage, baked farro and butternut squash, leek and artichoke bread pudding, goat cheese mashed potatoes and lemon-ginger molasses cake with whipped cream.

Martha's Ultimate Thanksgiving Menu pulls out all the stops with all of the 'perfect' dishes. Dine on the Perfect Roast Turkey with Perfect Turkey Gravy while snacking on chestnut stuffing, turkey-tail rolls, brussels sprouts, roasted autumn harvest salad, Big Martha's mashed potatoes, wild-rice stuffed squash, green bean casserole, sweet potato-ginger spoon bread and cranberry-ginger relish. Stuff your belly with desserts like mile-high apple pie, chocolate pecan pie, mini pumpkin whoopie pies. And don't forget to make the mulled cranberry cocktail for all of your guests.

But your meal doesn't have to compete with Ina or Martha. Sharing good food with family and friends is what makes Thanksgiving great.

Have a wonderful holiday from all of us at Ecocentric!