Green bean casserole and creamed spinach certainly weren’t served at the first Thanksgiving (though stuffed birds do date back to Ancient Roman times and could have been served in America’s early days). Because the first Thanksgiving was in Massachusetts, seafood like oysters and oyster stuffing were likely to have had a prominent place on the pilgrims’ table, though the tradition of eating shellfish on Thanksgiving hasn’t really stuck around.
Today’s common, starchy sides, like potatoes and mac and cheese, aren’t pilgrim or Native American fare, but rather dishes dating back to antebellum America, when enslaved Africans would cook for white families during the autumn harvest festivals. (Thanksgiving was not yet an official holiday.)
“It goes without saying that much of ‘white Southern’ holiday food owes its savor to the influence of black cooks and living in the vicinity of black cultures,” culinary historian Michael Twitty wrote in the Washington Post. Though some side dishes may have antebellum roots: “Some represent the glory of freedom, with deviled eggs and macaroni pie (the old Southern and Caribbean name for mac and cheese) being a prime example of the eggs, pasta and cheese that rarely if ever were enjoyed under the lash,” Twitty wrote.
And that legendary green bean casserole? Created in the 1950s by a young woman, Dorcas Reilly, with a degree in home economics and a job in the Campbells Soup Co. test kitchen, some grandparents at Thanksgiving may outdate green bean casserole, but the marketing made the gooey vegetable dish an instant classic. That’s America for you.
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