The Complicated History of a Symbolic Meal: The Thanksgiving Feast

By Grace Davis

New York City, New York

The holiday originated on stolen land, and the meal emerged from stolen food (Photo Credit: The Spruce Eats)

“Nothing proclaims your equality more than eating the same as other people. Nothing shows your independence more than being able to choose what you eat.” Food historian Rachel Laudan captured food’s power to be a liberator and a tool of democracy with these words in her book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. Laudan also explains the concept of a “middling cuisine” as essential to food equality and food justice. Not just something that tastes “in the middle,” a middling cuisine bridges the gap between high and humble cuisines in the form of a dish that all can enjoy. A middling meal is composed of food items that are accessible to everyone economically, geographically, and culturally. 


One meal in particular in American history occupies the space of a middling cuisine and is often seen as a symbol of equality and democratic ideals but emerged from a complicated history of both inequality and gratitude: the Thanksgiving dinner. 


The holiday of Thanksgiving originated from the Wampanoag tribe’s philosophy of selflessness—in the first celebration of Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag people provided the food for the feast as well as principles of agriculture and hunting. Native Americans introduced European settlers to foods including corn, beans, wild rice, and turkey, yet the widely celebrated national holiday originated on stolen land, and the Thanksgiving meal emerged from stolen food. English colonizers murdered the Wampanoag and stole their food from them in order to survive during their early years in the “New World.”


The most famous component of the Thanksgiving meal is its centerpiece: the turkey. 

The Food Timeline states that “the Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists often ate wild turkey, however it was not specifically mentioned in connection with that 1621 harvest celebration...the event now recalled as the ‘First Thanksgiving.'” Despite its potential backseat at the “First Thanksgiving,” the turkey has endured in the Thanksgiving meal. 


Turkey is a reasonably affordable, accessible bird, and the fact that it is the central figure in a feast that traditionally celebrates American history was no accident.


In the early years of the United States, a defining idea was that all citizens in a republic should have access to the same food. Many individuals were excluded from the citizenry: enslaved African Americans, women, Native Americans, and immigrants. Those in decision-making roles wondered whether the United States should mirror European countries that boasted high cuisines, or if the young republic should establish a new standard of a middling cuisine that (almost) everybody could eat.


Like turkey, the vegetables many people enjoy at Thanksgiving are fairly affordable: potatoes, onions, and canned green beans are accessible staples. Similarly, the wide variety of pies at Thanksgiving are basic, as opposed to elaborate cakes and mousses enjoyed by the English and French aristocracies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 


In recent centuries, industrialization has played a major role in increasing the availability of Thanksgiving foods. Rachel Laudan posited in her 2015 article “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” that industrialization, or “culinary modernism,” had made way for what everyone wanted: “Food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford.”


The very people who were denied citizenship in the early republic were instrumental in crafting the traditional Thanksgiving meal: the Wampanoag taught European settlers how to farm and hunt food; later, women argued that a national meal should be home-cooked, plentiful, and affordable; and Black southerners popularized traditional soul food dishes of collard greens, cornbread dressing and candied yams.


Many Americans share the experience of going home for Thanksgiving to celebrate with their families and close friends. The popularity of the Thanksgiving meal is a direct reflection of an intentional American political decision to create a meal that symbolizes democracy. 


Still, many Americans struggle with food insecurity and will go hungry on Thanksgiving. The organization Feeding America estimates that 54 million people are food insecure in 2020—18 million of them are children. We still have significant work to do to make this democratic meal with its complex history a reality for everyone to enjoy. So, this Thanksgiving, I ask that you be grateful for the food in front of you.