What Did Thanksgiving Dinner Look Like 100 Years Ago?

From green bean casserole to cranberry sauce, culinary historian Linda Pelaccio discusses how some of today's most cherished recipes came as a result of changing kitchen technology.

Was there ever a time in Thanksgiving history when we didn’t eat roasted turkey or green bean casserole? In fact, the American dinner table looked very different 100 years ago – especially considering the technological advances that came to be at the turn of the 20th century.

Culinary historian Linda Pelaccio, who hosts the podcast “A Taste of the Past” explains how some of our classic holiday dishes came to be and how some dishes were so much more than a happy coincidence.

“We can go back to what we know was the very first feast. It wasn’t really a ‘Thanksgiving Feast’ but we know that it was a big feast between the earliest colonists and the Wampanoag Tribe who was here,” Pelaccio said, explaining they would have eaten a lot of venison, fowl, goose, squash and corn. “It was really kind of positioned as a New England-Yankee dinner because it started with the colonists of New England.”

The turkey was introduced as the main protein as the holiday began shifting from its English roots. “Turkey was seen to be as very American, because we know that it was on land, an indigenous species here in North America, and that they wanted something that was really, truly an American bird,” Pelaccio said.

Kitchen technology advancement also played its role in birthing other classic recipes we know and love today.

“By the end of the 1800s, most people had cast iron cooking stoves, and that quickly was followed by the gas range in about 1910,” Pelaccio explained. “By the 1920s the electric range came about. Life became a lot easier. You just have to turn a button to light the oven rather than stoking a fire.”

Modern day refrigeration also followed closely which led to more sophisticated food preservation methods, like freezing and canning. “One of the beloved dishes on many Thanksgiving tables is the green bean casserole – the famous green bean casserole,” Pelaccio said. “And that all started by the technology of canned food and condensed soups.” 

Dorcas Reilley, who worked in the test kitchen of Campbell’s Soups, was tasked with developing a recipe that incorporated their mushroom soups. Using frozen green beans, Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup and French’s fried onions, Reilley came up with the green bean casserole. “Then Campbell’s soup company decided to print it on a can of soup and the rest is, as they say, history,” Pelaccio said.

Marshmallows also had a similar history, she explained. While once an indulgent sweet saved for the elite, marshmallows became available for mass consumption by the 1900s.

In a bid to have the product more commonly used, the brand behind the original development Angelus Marshmallows lobbied the Boston Cooking School to develop recipes surrounding the treat. “And one of them, lo and behold, was on top of sweet potatoes. They just added that to the top, and it made a nice sweet crust.”

Like the green bean casserole, the recipe for sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top made its way onto a box of marshmallows and continued to live on to this day.

Cranberry sauce also became more popular as more sugar was introduced into American diets and canning made enjoying the labor-heavy sauce all the easier. Pumpkin pie, with the invention of canned pumpkin also quickly became a widely enjoyed dish because of its convenience.

However, mincemeat pie, once a staple of holiday feasts across the country, quickly fell out of fashion as cooking became easier. “A lot of slaughtering went on in the fall, and in order to preserve some of the parts of the animal that weren't used right away, they would use suet and some of the other sweets to preserve the meat, and that was called mincemeat.”

The mincemeat pie, once a savory dish, eventually turned sweet as more brandy was added, more fruits were used in lieu of meat and less salt needed to be used to preserve the meat.

The move toward a more American feast also played a role in the disappearance of mincemeat pie, since the dish was too closely related to an English Christmas meal.

But, today’s Thanksgiving spread is seeing a development in a different direction. “With the waves of immigration over the years, we have so many international flavors on the tables today. We’re seeing a lot more specialties from other countries, because Thanksgiving is a holiday that everyone can embrace.”

As farming technologies also continue to change with our times, Pelaccio says we can anticipate seeing different vegetables on the table in the next hundred years. Regions where oysters and scallops appear in stuffing and other side dishes can also anticipate having to substitute the shellfish in their recipes in the coming generations as overfishing causes these populations to deteriorate.

“As our climate changes, as our environment changes, as farming methods change, we’re going to see changes in that regard,” Pelaccio said. “But we’ll replace it with something good, I’m sure.”