Thanksgiving in a can? The holiday’s edible controversies explained.

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Cranberry sauce prep can be as simple as opening a can, but some cooks prefer to get creative. This sampling features chipotle, ginger-miso, lemon tarragon, truffled, and smoky varieties.

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Does cranberry sauce count if it comes from the can? Have you ever actually eaten a yam, or are you really eating a sweet potato? And don’t even start with green bean casserole. 

For every “classic” Thanksgiving dish, there are ardent defenders and detractors in the never-ending debate about what belongs on the holiday table. 

Why We Wrote This

Underneath the annual culinary banter about the best – and worst – Thanksgiving dishes lies something deeper: decoding traditions, both familial and historical.

This culinary smack talk is actually a form of cultural coding, finding your “team,” so to speak. Somewhere someone taught you that your kin prefer this over that and you have stuck to it ever since. But where do these Thanksgiving traditions come from anyway?

Diving into those questions reveals more than just gastronomical preferences – it helps us sort out our own family traditions. It also reveals slices of American history, from the 30 years of research it took to develop canned cranberry sauce to the links between yams, sweet potatoes, and the transatlantic slave trade.

Besides, historians have long (and patiently) explained that we don’t really know what the Pilgrims and Wampanoags ate during their diplomatic talks at the so-called first Thanksgiving 400 years ago. So that means we all have had ample room to make up and defend our own traditions. 

Thanksgiving is a time of assembling family and friends and reengaging in age-old debates over what really belongs on the holiday table. This culinary smack talk is actually a form of cultural coding, finding your “team,” so to speak. Somewhere someone taught you that your kin prefer this over that and you have stuck to it ever since. But where do these Thanksgiving traditions come from anyway? 

Historians have long (and patiently) explained that we don’t really know what the Pilgrims and Wampanoags ate during their diplomatic talks at the so-called first Thanksgiving 400 years ago. So that means we all have had ample room to make up and defend our own traditions. 

Here is a brief look at the controversial histories of some “classic” dishes.

Why We Wrote This

Underneath the annual culinary banter about the best – and worst – Thanksgiving dishes lies something deeper: decoding traditions, both familial and historical.

Does canned cranberry sauce count?

However you prefer your cranberries – as a mold with ridges, sweetened with maple syrup, juiced up with an entire orange, or with a bit of fire from diced jalapeño – this indigenous fruit is truly North American.

Let’s get this other fact out of the way. Many, many Americans love jellied cranberry sauce from the can. It was Marcus Urann, a lawyer turned farmer, who saw an opportunity to lengthen the fleeting cranberry season through industrial canning in 1912. He developed his science over three decades, culminating in the launch of the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce log in 1941. Today, Ocean Spray claims Americans consume 400 million pounds of cranberries yearly, glugging down 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce every holiday season. 

It’s hard to argue with those numbers, but traditionalists still line up behind cranberry sauce freshly made on the stove-top. Amelia Simmons, after all, mentions cranberry sauce as a nice side to roasted turkey in American Cookery in 1796. One piquant step further is cranberry relish – raw ingredients blended together for a fresh, tart sweep of the tongue in the middle of the typically heavy Thanksgiving dishes.

Are those really yams?

Glazed sweet potatoes, also known as “candied yams,” is a simple dish with linguistic complexity baked into it. Sweet potatoes, indigenous to Central and South America, are tuberous roots and taste like carrots. Yams, with their dark, rough skin and white, orange, or purple starchy flesh, belong to a different botanical family entirely and are indigenous to Africa and Asia. Enslaved West African people arriving in the New World took to sweet potatoes as a reminder of home, even calling them after the African nyamis, which was shortened to yams. Southern growers adopted the word yam to distinguish their crop from the paler Northern variety. But it is highly unlikely you’ve actually bought and prepared a true yam in the United States unless you shop at specialty markets.

Glazed sweet potatoes may have a mid-century ring to it, but the dish more likely dates from at least the middle of the 19th century. A recipe for it was included in Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. By 1919, a booklet from the Barrett Company on Sweet Potato and Yams included the line, “A few marshmallows may be added a few minutes before removing from oven.” What enterprising domestic economist in a test kitchen added this confectionary flair that had this dish passing as a “vegetable”? The credit remains unclaimed.

Green bean casserole ... why?

Things can get confusing in the swirl of a test kitchen, as Campbell’s Dorcas Reilly recalled in a 2001 interview with The Boston Globe. Trying to figure out how to boost the sales of cream of mushroom soup, Ms. Reilly’s team of test cooks created a side dish with common pantry staples: milk, soy sauce, green beans, fried onions, and mushroom soup. The result was a recipe so simple and palate pleasing with its fat and salt content that even clumsy and harried cooks could master it in 10 minutes. But the time and place of the eureka moment remained elusive even to the kitchen manager.

“It’s hard to be specific, because it happened 46 years ago,” Ms. Reilly recalled in 2001. “We know that it first appeared in an [Associated Press] story in 1955.” From there it somehow captured American hearts.

Ms. Reilly donated the original green bean casserole recipe to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002, but remained reluctant to take the credit. Her obituaries in 2018, however, hailed her as the recipe’s creator.

Like most cherished Thanksgiving recipes, she said it was a team effort.

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