Thanksgiving side dishes: Vintage menu gives your holiday a throwback vibe
Many Thanksgiving meals this year will look more or less the same: stuffing, mashed potatoes, a pie or two, and a great big, succulent, golden-roasted turkey at the center of it all.
But Thanksgiving dinner has gone on something of a journey to get where it is today, and man, did that journey ever get rough. Do you know how much Americans loved mayonnaise and gelatin in the 1950s? It's nauseating just to see those two words in the same sentence.
So pre-game with some Ritz crackers, Cheez Whiz, a relish board and snack mix, and then dive in to a Thanksgiving meal like mom (or mom’s mom, or mom’s mom’s mom) used to make. Hope you like Jell-O.
Green bean casserole
The next time you have to choke down a bite of green bean casserole to make Aunt Agnes happy, you can thank Campbell’s Soup. The company created the tenacious side dish in 1955 to sell more cans of cream of mushroom soup.
Its charm is in its simplicity: The original recipe calls for green beans, a can of cream of mushroom soup, milk, soy sauce and a generous topping of French fried onions. No casserole dish has been safe since.
Jellied vegetable salad
Mid-century America sure loved itself some gelatin. Got leftover turkey? Maybe some canned peas or frozen carrots? Mix it with some gelatin, pour it into a mold, and magic! Dark, evil magic.
Sweet potato casserole
Sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving make sense; the orange root vegetable was a New World tuber popular in the Pacific. But why cover them in marshmallows? Americans have a seemingly boundless appetite for sugar, but there’s more to the history of this sweet casserole than that.
According to Saveur magazine, the culprit is good ol’ American advertising. When marshmallows were first mass-produced (and therefore cheaper), Angelus Marshmallows created and distributed its own book of marshmallow-inspired recipes – including marshmallow-topped mashed sweet potatoes.
The horrors of canned meats are legion. This popular army ration became a mid-century staple and inspired innumerable pork-based culinary atrocities. One vintage Spam ad suggests “Spam birds”: slices of Spam packed with stuffing, fastened with toothpicks and baked (served, of course, as everything was back then, with a hefty helping of peas).
Onions as a stand-alone side dish have fallen out of favor in American cuisine, but the pungent vegetable used to be a star of the Thanksgiving table. It was so popular an ingredient in Europe, according to the National Onion Association, the first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower. Creamed onions were a staple: plump little pearl onions sautéed in a buttery cream sauce.
Want to go ultra retro this Thanksgiving? Hunt a deer. While surviving literature confirms there were wild turkeys on the first Thanksgiving table in 1621, they weren’t the centerpieces our 20-pound Butterballs are today.
The legend goes that Swanson drastically miscalculated America’s appetite for Thanksgiving turkey one year – and then cleverly repurposed its surplus to popularize “TV dinners” in the U.S. Whether or not that’s true is up for debate, but the tale sure does make spongy slabs of turkey and thawed peas go down easier. The price when it debuted in 1954? Ninety-eight cents.
Now it’s rare to see a Jell-O salad outside of wakes and church basements, but there was a time when you couldn’t walk through an American kitchen without ending up with a mouthful of the instant dessert. Because, as the slogan went, “There’s always room for Jell-O.”
Invented in 1897, instant gelatin was a triumph of domestic science: It was quick and easy to prepare, a product of machine packaging that capitalized on new refrigeration technology. It may have fallen out of favor, but there’s still just something zen about chopped fruit suspended in wiggly, jiggly gelatin.
Libby’s Pumpkin Pie
Not all vintage Thanksgiving recipes are best left in the dustbin of history. If there’s any dish as essential as turkey to the American Thanksgiving table, it’s pumpkin pie. Chances are, you make yours with a can of Libby’s pumpkin pie filling. The company has been printing its signature, foolproof pumpkin pie recipe on its cans since the 1950s. Decades have passed, but that nine-ingredient recipe remains blessedly frozen in time.
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