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A Continental History of Thanksgiving Foods

Betty Sederquist

It's Thanksgiving Day and today we celebrate the bounty on our tables by learning about the origins of the some of the foods that make the holiday meal. Wisconsin Foodie host Kyle Cherek says that much of what we serve today actually originated on this side of the Atlantic.

"Maize (corn), potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers, blueberries, gourds, wild rice... and turkeys. And that's just the tip of the iceberg," he says.

Cherek notes the Europeans did contribute, introducing the "new world" to such things as pigs, oats, wheat, apples, sugarcane, coffee, almonds, carrots, beets, and cherries. But when it comes to the traditional Thanksgiving meal, the European contributions are the support to the Americas' main course offering - the turkey.

"It's a very American bird to have," says Cherek. "When the Spanish arrived in what is now Central America around 1500 they found turkeys." Some of those birds returned to Europe on those ships and became a key livestock animal across the continent.

The turkeys the Pilgrims brought with them from England in 1620 were ancestors of those Central American birds according to Cherek. But it seems they need not have bothered. "To make a long historical story short, the Native Americans said [to the Pilgrims], 'Oh, there are thousands of them over there in that field!'" he jokes.

But no matter who had which foods first, how the traditional meal has evolved, or how many traditions make up any Thanksgiving celebration - today is a favorite holiday for many Americans. And Kyle Cherek is no exception.

"Thanksgiving is a very authentic, legitimate, from this ground, going back hundreds of years, celebration of our original foods," he says. "Or at least the people who lived here - their original foods. But we’re paying homage in some way. I don’t want to wax too romantic but I tend to… we’re paying homage to that tradition."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.