Let’s face it: Thanksgiving without turkey should be illegal. But for people like me, the sides are the real MVPs of this annual holiday free-for-all. Let’s compare America’s favorite Thanksgiving side dishes today vs. those served at the first holiday meal in 1621.
Thanksgiving Side Dishes the Pilgrims Served in 1621
According to historical records, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag enjoyed many different meat dishes during the first Thanksgiving meal. In other words, turkey wasn’t the main course. So, it’s a bit difficult to identify what Americans today think of as Thanksgiving side dishes on that original menu. Historians believe the colonists’ first Thanksgiving side dishes were likely similar to the ones listed below:
- Stuffing (likely made with wild onions, herbs and shelled chestnuts)
- Pumpkins (either roasted or stewed)
- Assorted local fruits, such as cranberries, melons, grapes and plums
- Leeks, squash, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots and wild onions (served either roasted or boiled)
In addition, the Wampanoag and colonists feasted on a variety of native game, birds and fish, which likely included:
- Shellfish (dried, smoked or boiled mussels, oysters, clams and lobster)
- Waterfowl (i.e., geese, swans, ducks)
- Wild turkeys
- Spit-roasted passenger pigeons
To learn more about our most American holiday’s recipes and traditions, check out Kathleen Curtin’s book, Giving Thanks.
Today’s Most Popular Thanksgiving Side Dishes
Now that we know what the Pilgrims ate, what about today’s Thanksgiving side dishes? Below are the most popular Thanksgiving side dishes, ranked by Google Trends search data since 2004.
- Stuffing – This is the First Lady of Thanksgiving side dishes, IMO. The only real question is: Do you prefer yours inside the bird or not?
- Mashed potatoes – Maybe this isn’t your favorite, but if you leave the skins on, it adds fiber! And in fact, mashed potatoes are an ideal gravy delivery system. Otherwise, I have to put gravy on my turkey and then it just slides right off my fork.
- Cornbread – If you live in a northern, coastal or Midwestern U.S. state, this is the spot where rolls normally go. I honestly don’t think much about dinner rolls. No families pass a beloved dinner roll recipe down from generation to generation. Moving on…
- Macaroni and cheese – This is the most beloved of all Thanksgiving side dishes in my household. Nearly every family has their own cherished recipe or special twist on this holiday favorite. But if you’re on a diet, beware! Even whole grain pasta won’t mitigate the damage from this dairy-rich calorie bomb.
- Green bean casserole – People talk a lot of smack about this casserole, and it’s easy to understand why. If the cold, jelly-like condensed soup base isn’t your thing, try this recipe using all homemade ingredients.
- Sweet potato casserole – I personally can’t get down with dessert that’s disguised as a vegetable. In other words, the marshmallow topping’s a deal-breaker for me. If you feel like I do, why not cook a few yams or sweet potatoes in your slow-cooker instead?
Thanksgiving Menu Favorites That Aren’t Side Dishes
I will fight you on this short but necessary list, because I know I’m right. These things are not Thanksgiving side dishes! However, it really doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving without them on your table… right?
- Cranberry sauce (either canned or homemade)
- Gravy (giblet or brown)
- Salad (this goes with every meal and gets no special Thanksgiving menu designation, plus people in certain states never include it)
- Ham (only serve this if you have more than 20 guests show up and one turkey isn’t enough to feed everyone)
If you didn’t see your favorite Thanksgiving side dishes anywhere on our list, it’s probably a regional thing. For example: You’re more likely to encounter cornbread dressing than traditional bread-based stuffing in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Or maybe your table’s incomplete without collard greens (i.e., those living in southern Atlantic states). But that’s the great thing about Thanksgiving. Nobody in America walks away from a Thanksgiving meal hungry – and if you do, then it’s your own fault!