American Thanksgiving: Diversity Within Shared Traditions

Nile J. Johnson is Assistant Information Officer at the U.S. Mission to the European Union


Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends gather to celebrate the wonderful things that have happened over the last year. Perhaps a new baby was born, or a parent earned a promotion. Maybe your sister overcame an illness or a homeless family now has shelter. Whatever the case, there’s always something for which to be grateful. Including a turkey.

But the turkey isn’t the only thing that makes the meal super special. My family has traditionally added many different sides to spice up our Thanksgiving meal experience. My absolute favorite is my mother’s stuffing, which includes clams and raisins. It’s the perfect mix of sweet and succulent, and it’s always a hit! Also, since my oldest sister started her own family, she has fallen in love with healthy cooking. Her black bean salad is fantastic, and is generally “taste-tested” into non-existence by mealtime.

Here is more on our culinary traditions from my colleague Karisha Kuypers from the Foreign Agriculture Service here at the U.S. Mission to the EU:

A Thanksgiving celebration at Ambassador Gardner's.
A Thanksgiving celebration at Ambassador Gardner’s.

Thanksgiving is one of the United States’ most loved holidays.  The traditions associated with the holiday are some of the most typical American and the most universally observed across the country.  For a majority of Americans, the most important part of Thanksgiving is a large meal of traditional foods shared with friends and family.  No other American holiday is so closely associated with food, and in particular, by the specific types of food that are served.  The classic American Thanksgiving meal almost always includes a turkey, bread stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Even though the dishes served in a traditional Thanksgiving meal are remarkably uniform across the United States, the recipes for those dishes can vary by region, by culture, or even by family.  These ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving dishes are interpreted in different ways by people from different regions of the United States, which often makes these recipes a fascinating insight into the diversity of cultures, regions, and history across the United States.  The types of produce and food native to each section of the United States also play a role in the way Americans interpret traditional dishes.  Foods that are native to particular regions in the United States, along with the cultures and cooking traditions from those regions, influence the ways in which Thanksgiving traditions have developed across the country.

Thanksgiving stuffing is a perfect example: this typically American dish is a mixture of bread, vegetables, and herbs that can either be cooked inside the turkey (hence the term ‘stuffing’) or on its own as a side dish.  From there, culture, region, and family traditions interpret the basic building blocks of the recipe to create variations of what it means to be traditional.  It is often possible to tell where in the United States a person comes from simply by the type of stuffing that he or she makes.  In the South, stuffing is made with cornbread in place of bread and often includes spicy pork sausage.  Instead of bread, stuffing in the upper Midwest often uses wild rice, a type of rice native to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  In both New England and Louisiana, with their abundance of seafood, stuffing may include oysters.  Chestnuts and hazelnuts are added in states like Washington and Oregon that have an abundance of chestnut and hazelnut groves, while pecans are used in pecan-producing states in the South like Georgia.  Peppers and even chilies might be added to stuffing recipes in the Southwest.

As in most countries, holiday traditions tend to center around food.  The typical Thanksgiving meal demonstrates both the importance of traditional dishes as well as how different cultures, ethnicities, and regions in the United States interpret these traditions and make them their own.  Thanksgiving offers an opportunity for Americans not only to demonstrate pride in their own cooking traditions and food culture, but also a chance to celebrate uniquely American foods.

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