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Thanksgiving History; The Original Farm to Table Experience

Virginia Tech

When you’re looking for information on Virginia History, the special collections department at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library is a good place to start. Among the isles of historic books and records, are some 5,000 volumes relating to food and drink, dating back to the 1800's.

Archivist Kira Dietz has pored over those old recipes to give us a taste of what Thanksgivings have been like throughout the centuries.

A lot has changed since the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in what is now the United States.  Today, classic dishes like turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce abound in all parts of the country.  But 3-hundred years ago, when what most people consider the first “Thanksgiving” dinner was held in Massachusetts, all food was pretty much local;the original ‘farm to table’ cuisine. Kira Dietz is a special collections archivist at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library, where they have thousands of historic cookbooks that give us a taste of this region’s food history.

There’s still some debate about where the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated. Kiea Dietz is a Special Collections Archivist at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library. She points out that Thanksgiving didn’t become a federally recognized holiday until 1863.” And then it became a national holiday in 1939 but before all of that, there's a lot of history to the idea of religious and festive, feast-based celebrations of Thanksgiving in this country.”

What some suggest may have been the very first Thanksgiving, or at least a pre-cursor to what became the first, ---actually a time for fasting, instead of eating--- by Spanish explorers in the1560s in what Texas is now.  And nearly 50 years after that in Virginia, some historians point to a feast of thanks in Virginia.  “We know that we had colonists, that came from, from England to Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. In 1610 an English ship, ‘basically a resupply ship, arrived in Jamestown and over the particularly difficult winter, the settlers had gone from 490 to 60 people. So when the food ships arrived, basically they held a really big feast in the spring of 1610, which some scholars would argue was first ‘Thanksgiving.’ 

But Dietz points out, most scholars hold to the 1621 Thanksgiving in Plymouth Massachusetts as the first. She says “Descriptions of the harvest that year include foods that appear on today’s thanksgiving table; wild turkey, corn, greens and something found only in that region, cranberries. “You know, we think of cranberry sauce,” as standard Thanksgiving fare, well, cranberries are a New England product and wouldn't have been a part of Virginia celebrations, for the large part, until we had the transportation to move them around. In the south, “We would see influences from African American populations and vegetables that were brought from Africa as well. So that's where you see more okra as opposed to maybe green beans or spinach.”


Pumpkin is another traditional food at Thanksgiving, but in those early days, it was, of course, prepared very differently than it is today. “So, I, today you think about pumpkin pie and well, it's this pureed, processed canned pumpkin, that you’re going to pour into a pre-made crust.”  You may add ingredients as well, she says, “but if you look at some of the late, even early 19th century recipes for precursors to basically pumpkin pies, you're talking about cutting it into pieces and cooking that down and making a, a pastry from scratch.”  

Back then, outdoor, wood fired ovens, put the guesswork into the whole process, but with today’s kitchen appliances, it’s much less work for something, Dietz says, is worth it.

She adds: the archivists at Newman Library encourage people to come visit special collections.  They’ll get you set on the path to answering your curious questions, your research questions, and everything in between.  Below are some of Dietz articles, including historic recipes for pumpkin and apple pie. But the recipe’s are not as we know them today, in that they don’t often include exact measurements. ““We didn’t have standard measures like a teaspoon, cup, tablespoon until 1896,” said Dietz. “Some recipes included generalizations such as a teacup of sugar or add butter the size of an egg. What does that mean? Even chicken eggs come in different sizes.”

Link to recipes


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.