Thanksgiving is one of the biggest national holidays in the United States. Held on the fourth Thursday in November, the holiday brings millions of American families together every year to feast on a roast turkey, the centrepiece of the day.
Every year millions of American families bring the country to a standstill on the last Thursday in November to stuff themselves on a plump roast turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s a very popular and meaningful celebration for family and friends. In many cases, it’s even more important than Christmas. The festivities are part of the country’s DNA. The ritual of sharing food while sitting down to eat with loved ones is famous around the world, thanks to numerous mentions in American films and iconography.
The Thanksgiving turkey is the cornerstone of the holiday. But before getting into the culinary details, let’s take a look at the history for some context.
Any American child can tell you that the origin of the celebration goes back to 1620, when the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, after having set sail from England. The ship landed in the northeast of the country, filled with settlers who wanted to start a new life in the region.
Upon arrival, the travellers were aided by the leader of an indigenous tribe, who helped them with the harvest and to survive the harshness and difficulties of the region. After managing to successfully harvest their first crop of corn, the governor of the Plymouth settlement organised a three-day long celebration, inviting several Native American locals.
This shared meal was a symbol of harmony and was the birth of Thanksgiving. In 1863, the government of the United States declared the last Thursday in November a national holiday.
The main feature is the turkey.
Thanksgiving would not be the same without it. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88% of Americans eat turkey during Thanksgiving. In addition, they note that the weight of the turkey has increased from an average of 7 to 13kg.
It’s also true that Thanksgiving Day would not be the same without the President of the United States appearing together with a turkey. The tradition was started in 1947 with Harry Truman, and since George H. W. Bush in 1989, the president has always ‘pardoned’ the turkey.
Now let’s get down to the food. The turkey is usually bought frozen, and it takes a long time to cook. It’s no easy task to get the timing right, and the weight of the turkey means that cooking times vary.
The sauce of sauces
On Thanksgiving, the sauce par excellence is cranberry sauce. In Europe, it’s better known simply due to the number of times it has been mentioned in American TV series and films.
The cranberry is a popular fruit in the United States during the autumn. The easiest and most effective way to recreate it is to serve the turkey with a cranberry jam, compote or equivalent. Similar options include redcurrant, blueberry, raspberry or blackberry jam.
Turkey meat can be quite dry, and for your Thanksgiving dinner to be a success, you need to make a good gravy. This meat sauce is made from a roux base that is cooked with meat broth. Gravy needs to be made slowly to avoid a lumpy sauce.
Even though it’s called “stuffing”, it doesn’t actually go inside the turkey and is served at the bird’s side. There are many different ways to make it, and the ingredients vary depending on the part of the country, and even on the tastes of each family.
But the most common stuffing is made of breadcrumbs or bread cubes taken from a rustic loaf. Stuffing ingredients usually include bacon, sausage meat, nuts, some kind of leavening agent, cheese and even fruit.
A soup starter
In the United States, it’s traditional to serve a seasonal vegetable soup before starting on the turkey, to get your appetite going. This creamy soup is made of cream, butter, milk, cheese and bacon.
Cauliflower is the most popular vegetable used to make this soup, although broccoli and pumpkin are also common. Take care when serving out the portions, as these soups are generally fairly high in calories and they are just the starter for the mega-turkey to come!
Classic mashed potatoes
This is a simple but classic dish served on every table during Thanksgiving dinner. Some prefer thicker mash, with a more rustic texture where you notice the chunks of potato, and other recipes even include small slices of potato skin.
But the classic and most popular mashed potato has a creamy texture. This can be achieved by making sure the potatoes are well cooked, and by adding ingredients like cream or butter.
Green beans are a must
Green beans are one of the best-loved side dishes at Thanksgiving and are normally served in a casserole dish.
Flat or round green varieties of green beans are typical in the United States and are usually combined with fried, caramelised or glazed onions. The dish can also be served together with bacon or vegetables. Some kind of sauce might also be added for extra flavour.
Sweet potato side dish
During the autumn in the United States, sweet potatoes compete with pumpkins for the top spot. But sweet potatoes deserve a special mention because they are another Thanksgiving classic.
They appear on the menu in a soup, mashed or as part of a dessert, but they’re sure to make an appearance in some form or other. One of the most popular and traditional dishes is roast sweet potato with herbs, or they can be served au gratin with a creamy sauce under a marshmallow topping – a calorie overload!
If Americans have any space left in their stomachs after eating everything we mentioned above, they finish off their meal with a pie.
They typically prepare a selection of different flavoured pies. The most popular choices are pecan pie, apple pie, sweet potato pie and of course, pumpkin pie (another dish from the movies).