Thanksgiving Staples Like Corn, Turkey, and Potatoes Originate in the Americas

The majority of Thanksgiving food staples that will be on dinner tables and countertops across the US on Nov. 24, such as turkey, pumpkin, maize, and potatoes, all share a common history: they all come from somewhere in the ancient Americas.

The origin story of Thanksgiving has shifted over time. However, the main consensus is that Europeans were racist, violent, and hostile towards Native Americans by the end of that so-called first Thanksgiving celebration and for many decades and a few centuries more.

Several hundreds of years of history prove it, in particular through boarding schools, massacres, and earlier via the implementation of the reservation system and the removal of Native Americans from the majority of the East Coast.

But that’s only when you look at the East Coast, although the practice later extended across the entire country. The Spanish took a different approach in the US Southwest: the encomienda, assimilation, and amalgamation. 

Yet, the ancestral-English settlers and white American colonizers who won the Mexican-American war after the Spanish were forced out of Mexico and South America. With that, Thanksgiving arrived in the Southwest.  

Thanksgiving Arrives in California

The holiday likely arrived in California at some point in the late 1840s–likely after the Mexican-American War–but it’s debatable when it happened exactly. 

An article from an 1896 edition of the San Francisco Call notes the first Thanksgiving in California “may have been as early as 1848. It is very likely, however, that it was in the year 1849.” The poem “Thanksgiving in California at the Cabin, 1849” further suggests that it might have been the first year white Americans celebrated the holiday in California.

Regardless, by 1849, Thanksgiving had already been introduced to most Americans living on the East Coast. And even though it wasn’t a federal holiday just yet, Thanksgiving arrived on the West Coast in large part to the self-absorbed belief in Manifest Destiny; and in part thanks to President James Polk.

However, the food staples associated with the holiday have gravitated towards the festivity because of practicality. All of the Thanksgiving food staples were domesticated or originated in the Americas. They were found on the land or had traveled through ancient Mesoamerican trade routes for centuries.

Thanksgiving Staples that Originated in the Americas

If you search for “Thanksgiving Meals” on Google Images, what comes up are mostly stock photographs primarily featuring turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and pumpkin or pecan pie.

The Americas didn’t naturally have cows, pigs, or even chickens. Instead, the turkey and bison were the most common animals that natives consumed for energy. 

But how the turkey became a Thanksgiving motif is likely more of a literary tale shaped by fiction and supposed historical accounts, which made it a norm over the last couple of centuries. Today, turkey is the most common protein consumed on Thanksgiving, and it’s eaten in several distinct ways, including with several side dishes like cranberry sauce–cranberries are native to the Americas.

On the other hand, maize is one of the most significant plants that originated throughout Mesoamerica. You may see maize (corn) in cornbread, a casserole, or just on a cob during Thanksgiving. Maize is and has been so integral to Mesoamerican cultures that the gods created people out of corn, according to the Maya creation story.

Then, there are potatoes, often served in their mashed potato form with brown gravy during Thanksgiving, originated in South America. The potato’s similarly named counterpart, the sweet potato, is also from Central and South America. During Thanksgiving, you might see sweet potatoes in various forms, like a casserole, pie, or served along with milk.

On Thanksgiving, pumpkins might also make an appearance, not as whole pumpkins carved into a jack-o-lantern, but as a pumpkin pie. Pumpkins are native to North America. In addition, the main ingredient in pecan pie, pecans–another popular Thanksgiving dish–also comes from North America.

Food of the Americas

So, in many ways, it’s ironic that Thanksgiving, a relatively Eurocentric holiday–although originating in North America in its current form– is associated with foods that have native American roots–spanning two continents–and foods that Native Americans consumed throughout all of Mesoamerica for centuries.

When thinking about culture and ancestry, it’s too easy to forget about food. 

Although it’s not exactly decolonizing one’s diet, especially for individuals who identify with their indigenous and native Mesoamerican roots, it’s important to remember that these foods go further back than Thanksgiving has existed in the US. 

They were already crucial foods consumed before Europeans arrived and colonized the Americas.

In the same way that on Columbus Day, the US recognizes Indigenous People’s Day, why can’t Thanksgiving become a celebration and reclamation of our indigenous and Mesoamerican ancestry, shared with family and loved ones, instead of just another US holiday with a racist history?