30 Classic Thanksgiving Recipes That Deserve a Comeback
What we think of as the "first" Thanksgiving wasn't actually "Thanksgiving" at all. Rather, it was a rare and (for the most part) impromptu moment of levity in the Pilgrims' first year at Plymouth Rock. That "moment," which was a feast to celebrate the first harvest, actually occurred over a three-day period during the autumn of 1621.
Written records indicate that the earliest Thanksgiving featured deer, seafood, and fowl, along with crops like beans, pumpkin, squash, and corn. Similar autumnal feasts were held sporadically in the new world over the next century and a half, but it wasn't known officially as "Thanksgiving," nor did it involve any sort of turkey-eating imperative, until 1789. That's the year George Washington declared a day of "Thanksgiving," to which Alexander Hamilton supposedly responded, "No person should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day."
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving did not become an annual American holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it so. By then, white potatoes, white bread, pies (both savory and sweet), fried and cream-based dishes, and desserts galore had entered the Thanksgiving landscape, reflecting what Americans believed was on the table in 1621, albeit tailored to their contemporary tastes.
As American tastes have evolved, so has our Thanksgiving repertoire. While this represents progress, some truly exceptional dishes have wound up fading from sight as new tastes and new food trends emerge. But that's where the following vintage dishes come in, each of which represented the height of popularity at some point in Thanksgiving history. These dishes deserve another shot at finding their place, once again, at the Thanksgiving table.
"Following tradition, many housekeepers wish to introduce oysters into the Thanksgiving dinner," the Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics (the BCSM) noted in 1913 before warning against doing so via stuffing, the cooking of which is "too prolonged for anything as delicate as an oyster."
One alternative suggested by the BCSM was oyster soup. As you might surmise, oyster soup is basically an oyster-y version of New England style clam chowder, and this recipe from the 1918 edition of the Boston Cooking School's Cookbook is particularly oyster-focused.
When BCSM urged home cooks to avoid cooking oysters into their Thanksgiving stuffing, it also warned against "ordinary cooks" attempting oyster croquettes, which "are the work of an artist." Nevertheless, the same 1918 cookbook referenced above includes this recipe for oyster croquettes. Frankly, it doesn't seem all that complicated.
Moreover, we think there's no such thing as an "ordinary cook." So please do consider giving this chicken-fried-oyster recipe a try.
Fondue began trending in the U.S. in the mid-1950s and peaked in the 1970s, when Gruyere and Emmenthaler cheeses had become readily available in American grocery stores. Plus, Americans had also begun figuring out they could enjoy a bit of communal fun while dipping appetizer-sized bites of meat and bread into hot, flavorful liquids.
If you've never tried fondue, please do. It's super-fun, and this "Turkey fondue" from the November 1974 issue of Ebony magazine sounds like a simple way to get your deep-fried turkey fix without blowing up your backyard.
Ham Supreme Crepes
Savory crepes were especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Like fondue, crepes represented a move toward globalizing the American palate, and they're actually quite fun, both to make and to eat. Also from the November 1974 issue of Ebony comes this simple recipe for a smoky, creamy, ham-focused crepe. Topped with cool avocado slices, this recipe still feels current.
Shrimp was in abundance in 17th-century New England and no doubt made an appearance in 1621's autumn feast. But shrimp has virtually disappeared from Thanksgiving tables in the intervening four centuries, which seems unfortunate, as shrimp is not only super-high in protein but also a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
That goes double for shrimp cocktail, which somehow manages to pair boiled shrimp with ketchup for a paradoxically upscale culinary vibe. Here's an updated take on the classic shrimp cocktail, featuring oven-roasted shrimp.
Get our recipe for Roasted Shrimp Cocktail.
Salads and Relishes
Cranberry and Avocado Salad
Cool slices of avocado also feature prominently in this Thanksgiving-themed salad featured in Sunset Magazine's Host and Hostess Book, published in 1940.
The recipe features gelatin, as many recipes did in the early to mid-20th century. (After all, it was in 1934 that the world first heard the jingle "J-E-L-L-O" on the radio.) But let's not hold that against it. In fact, it's pure Americana. More importantly, this recipe features the contrasting flavors and textures of cranberries, avocado, and watercress. What's not to love?
Cranberry Jewel Salad
This cranberry and-gelatin-based salad from the 1950s truly reflects America's sweet tooth, as well as the movement to embrace the convenience of canned foods. It features canned cranberry sauce, plus orange juice and raspberry-flavored gelatin. Sweet as it may be, it's actually a compelling combination of flavors.
But how is it a salad, you might ask? It's intended to be served in a lettuce cup. To bring down the sweetness, you could add raspberry-flavored gelatin to your own orange-cranberry sauce, omitting some of the sugar to reflect the pre-sweetened nature of the gelatin.
Edible Cranberry Candles
The 1960s were the beginning of a more creative time in American life, one that's now reflected in the pottery-making and wine and paint night crazes. Here, cranberries are used to creative perfection to create edible cranberry candles.
Winter Garden Salad
Watermelon and feta. Endive and goat. Tomatoes and burrata. Is there anything left in the realm of cheese-based salads that we haven't yet explored? Perhaps not, but this vintage recipe for a salad combining cauliflower, radishes, and blue cheese will feel new, as you probably haven't seen anything like it since the mid-1970s. Plus, it features cauliflower, which is in the midst of having quite a moment today.
Recipes for ambrosia began appearing in the second half of the 19th century, perhaps in response to citrus fruits becoming widely available. Toeing a fine line between salad and dessert, ambrosia quickly came to be a southern Christmas and Thanksgiving staple. Over time, however, its ubiquity faded, which is too bad considering the fresh and healthy ingredients in this ambrosia recipe from 1907 (minus the sugar, which could easily be omitted).
Cloved Ham with Cider Sauce
In 1902, a food writer named Anna Wells Morrison came up with a menu she called "A Colonial Thanksgiving Dinner in the Twentieth Century," featuring, among other things, this recipe for cloved ham with cider sauce. If you're looking for an excuse to put the ham back on the Thanksgiving table, this clove-infused ham with a sauce made from hard cider is all you need.
Oysters have never really left the Thanksgiving table, although for the most part, they've lost considerable ground since 1621. This recipe for escalloped oysters from Alabama's landmark Purefoy Hotel's cookbook, circa 1941, could change that.
It's a simple recipe, and because it bakes for a mere 30 minutes at 325 degrees, it shouldn't destroy the texture of the oysters. While the name might imply that this dish cooks on individual scallop shells, that trend wouldn't take off until several decades later. However, that too could be a trend worth resurrecting. (If you're cooking on scallop shells, the cooking time should be adjusted accordingly.)
"Pastry in some form is usually given a place in a Thanksgiving dinner," wrote the BCSM at the turn of the 20th century. "Keep in mind that the best pastry (puff) calls for equal weights of flour and shortening [whereas] plain pastry is made with shortening equal to half the weight of the flour." Right there, you have what may be the simplest and most easy-to-remember formula for pie-baking, ever. Go ahead and try it with this pork pie recipe from the 1920s.
Turn-of-the-century Fowl of Choice
"For the main dish of the Thanksgiving Dinner, fowl of some kind is considered de rigueur," notes the BCSM, which advises trussing the bird into a compact shape and basting it frequently with hot fat, cooking at a "moderate temperature" for 1 1/2 to 2 hours for four pounds of bird.
Follow the BCSM's perfectly simple advice to make your bird of choice, whether chicken, goose, duck, partridge, quail, pigeon, etc. But in the interest of food safety, please make your "stuffing" outside the bird.
Classic Turkey Gravy
Homemade turkey gravy may well be a lost art, but that wasn't the case in 1948, when Louisville Courier-Journal food editor Cissy Gregg advised that "good gravy" was unlikely to result from simply swishing around the turkey's juices in the roasting pan. Follow Gregg's recipe to ensure a gravy your turkey won't be "ashamed of," as she put it.
Marinated Venison Steaks
It doesn't seem right to bring back all these other vintage Thanksgiving recipes but to leave out venison. Venison was, after all, at center stage during 1621's seminal autumn feast. Today, venison is far less common, but it's not unheard of.
This recipe for marinated venison steaks has been "honed over the years by members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation," according to the New York Times, which recommends pairing the dish with traditional Thanksgiving side dishes.
"Turkey Stuffing with Lots of 'Plah'"
No one can say exactly what "plah" is, but if this recipe sent into the Chicago Tribune in 1923 is any indication, it's something all stuffings might wish to consider aspiring to. It's a sausage-based stuffing that includes fried onions, and the recipe is apparently tailor-made for turkey (as opposed to other fowl).
Chestnuts, as well as walnuts, were part of the spread in 1621, but we see them less and less often these days. Perhaps it's because of the prevalence of nut allergies. If you don't have anyone at your table who is allergic to nuts, then why not bring back this "old chestnut"?
The recipe appeared in the November 21, 1932 edition of Texas' Beaumont Journal. This recipe and others featured along with it included ingredients readily available in the area.
So, perhaps you're not convinced, despite the BCSM's best efforts, that oysters don't belong in the stuffing. Or perhaps you wish there were a way to include oysters in your stuffing without decimating their texture. Either way, this oyster stuffing recipe published in the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times in the 1940s may be the answer—provided you modify it by cooking it outside the bird (for safety) and add the oysters only in the last half hour of cooking (to retain their structure).
German Apple Herb Stuffing
This recipe from Sunset Magazine in 1969 was very much de rigueur at the time because it featured an international take on an American favorite. The trend of combining international flavor with American cuisine was just beginning to peak in the late 1960s and continued in full force throughout the 1970s, as reflected by Swanson's introduction of its internationally-themed TV dinners.
Vegetables and Potatoes
Celery with French Dressing
"As a green vegetable, to serve with the turkey, neatly trimmed heads and roots (unharmed by nails) of choice celery, cut in lengthwise halves or quarters, will be enjoyed by almost everyone," the BCSM noted in 1913. "If a dressed vegetable be preferred… no dressing other than a simple French mixture is suitable for this occasion." French dressing? Raise your hand if you'd kind of forgotten about it. Well, let's bring it back with this classic recipe from the turn of the century.
The Native American name, "succotash," might be your first clue this dish goes back a long way in American history. In fact, it may have been part of 1621's seminal autumnal feast. Consisting of corn and lima beans, succotash packs quite the nutritional punch when paired with healthy grains like buckwheat or quinoa. Here's a 1902 re-imagining of an early Colonial succotash recipe, again from Morrison.
Butternut Squash with Parmesan
Squash was name-checked in Edward Winslow's written record of 1621's autumn feast, and it's safe to assume Winslow was referring to butternut squash, which is a late-harvest squash indigenous to New England. Nowadays, it often takes a backseat to brightly colored dishes that are more aggressively sweet (think: sweet potatoes or yams with mini marshmallows). But here's a savory version that dates back to 1959 but seems perfect for the modern Thanksgiving table.
"My grandmother's [creamed] onions were cooked according to the method given in her 1902 copy of Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book by Sarah Tyson Rorer," food writer Sylvia Thompson wrote in her 1994 Los Angeles Times ode to this Thanksgiving tradition that now only makes the occasional appearance on Thanksgiving tables. But Thompson made such a good case for creamed onions (especially creamed baby onions) that this dish seems ripe for resurrecting. Luckily, she revealed the recipe in her essay.
"Glazed turnips are such an old-fashioned feature of a Thanksgiving dinner that they should not be omitted," wrote Josephine Grenier in Harper's Bazar (which later became Harper's Bazaar) back in 1904. Apparently, America did not listen because turnips are no longer a Thanksgiving table staple, and that seems, well, wrong.
Turnips are not only delicious, but they also have natural anti-inflammatory properties. Bring them back to the Thanksgiving table with this roasted turnips recipe.
Sweet Potatoes Western
Sure, sweet potatoes are ubiquitous on Thanksgiving. But they aren't usually layered with orange slices, as they were in this 1940s recipe for Sweet Potatoes Western from Sunset Magazine's Host and Hostess Book. Yet, orange slices add a welcome brightness to the richness of sweet potatoes, so why not give this long-forgotten recipe new life this Thanksgiving?
In 1896, the Boston Cooking School Cookbook featured this recipe for Thanksgiving pudding, which is, essentially, bread pudding made with crackers instead of bread. Updated versions like this one substitute breadcrumbs for crackers and include dried fruits that hark back to traditional English mincemeat. The only question we have is why this easy-to-make, sweet and comforting dessert is no longer in regular Thanksgiving rotation.
This wine-infused caramelized brown sugar topping for Thanksgiving Pudding appeared in the 1922 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, with references going back to 1918. It's not just perfect for Thanksgiving Pudding, either—it can also be used as a topping for that classic's successor, bread pudding.
Sugar Ration Apple Pie
During World War II, certain foods were being rationed, and that included sugar. Sugar rationing presented a Thanksgiving challenge to home cooks, who nevertheless rose to the occasion with recipes like this Sugar Ration Apple Pie, which managed to deliver plenty of sweetness despite using a mere spoonful of sugar. While wartime rationing no longer applies, cutting back on sugar still seems like a worthy goal.
Pumpkin Cookie Bars
Bar cookies have been around since at least the turn of the century. But they quickly grew in popularity throughout the second half of the 20th century because they offered convenience for the baker and easy transportability for the eater. These cream-cheese-frosting-topped pumpkin cookie bars, circa 1987, were the brainchild of Libby's, which seems to have been looking for a way to expand demand for their canned pumpkin that went beyond pumpkin pie. Packed with nuts and oats, they're actually healthier than pumpkin pie and definitely worthy of a comeback.
Now that you know more about what Thanksgiving was like in years past, you might be inspired by something new—or just be more appreciative of what's on your dinner table this year.