It happens every year. Whether it’s sweet potatoes smothered in marshmallows or the ever-popular green bean casserole, we know those holiday dishes are just around the corner when the first leaves start to fall, and we hungrily anticipate their arrival.
But where did these standby recipes come from, and how did they find their way onto our holiday tables? We picked a few favorites, did a little digging, and here’s what we found.
Tried and true
When the Campbell Soup Co. first released its cream of mushroom soup in 1934, it quickly became America’s kitchen sweetheart. It found its way into creamy casseroles and comfort foods, and some even referred to it as “America’s béchamel.” Campbell’s introduced the now-iconic recipe for green bean casserole in 1955 in order to promote its mushroom soup, according to the company’s website. The strategy must have worked because Campbell reports earning about $20 million a year just off cans of cream of mushroom soup that are sold around Thanksgiving.
Ambrozia’s executive chef, Sam Etheridge, considers green bean casserole his “must-have Thanksgiving dish.” Although he enjoys making the tried-and-true classics he grew up with, he also likes to do elevated interpretations using fresh ingredients instead of the usual canned or store-bought products.
“Instead of canned beans, I use haricot vert, or French green beans, and instead of Campbell’s canned soup, I make a quick version of a creamy mushroom sauce and then fry shallots instead of the store-bought fried onions — although, if short on time, the store-bought onions are delicious,” he says, noting, “I finish it off with a little bit of brie cheese.” (See sidebar for recipe.)
Sweet or savory?
At the turn of the 20th century, marshmallows were handmade and expensive. Machinery was then introduced to automate the marshmallow-making process, and using the gooey treat in recipes became modern and trendy. According to Andrew Smith, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, the Cracker Jack company put out a small booklet of recipes in 1917 to encourage people to cook with marshmallows and this recipe has survived and thrived ever since. Housewives were encouraged to use them in place of meringue and whipped cream to save time.
David Van Tassel, previously executive chef at the now-closed The Junction, says he prefers his holiday sweet potatoes to be savory rather than sugary. Instead of going with the typical marshmallow-topped affair, he suggests that people get creative and dig into the pantry — to basically use the sweet potatoes as a canvas on which to produce a work of culinary art. (See sidebar for recipe and ideas.)
Stuffing or dressing?
According to foodreference.com, the first mention of stuffing meat appears in a collection of Roman recipes by Apicius, an early culinarian. Over time, the concept of stuffing meat with other meats was adopted by Europeans, particularly the French. Today, most cooks tend to stick to breadier, nonmeat fillings, especially for the holiday table.
Richard Petrelli, executive chef of the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, says his favorite holiday food is definitely stuffing or dressing. “It’s believed that an abundance of rice and wild game back in the day is what brought the two together to make the original dressing,” Petrelli says. “However, in the long history of the dish, it has been made from many other ingredients such as oysters, salt pork, biscuits and cornbread; the typical mainstay is plenty of butter.”
But, stuffing or dressing — what to call it? Is there even a distinction? According to a 2007 U.S. survey done by Butterball, some believe that if it’s cooked inside the turkey, it’s stuffing, and if it’s prepared outside the bird, then it’s dressing. Nationwide, the majority of folks tend to go with the “stuffing” nomenclature. And although “dressing” adherents can be found all over the country, most seem to live in the South.
“We serve it on both Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Petrelli says. “I think one of the beauties of this side dish is how comforting it is. Its style varies, depending on not only region but household, too. It’s one of those dishes that represents what a true melting pot our country is, and it’s fun to enjoy it year in and year out.”
It’s hard to imagine a Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. By the early 18th century, the dessert had earned its place at the table as Thanksgiving became a New England regional holiday. According to History.com, Amelia Simmons’ pioneering 1796 book, American Cookery, contained a pair of pumpkin pie recipes, one of which is similar to today’s custard version. Sometimes a crust was unnecessary — an early New England recipe involved filling a hollowed-out pumpkin with spiced, sweetened milk and cooking it directly in a fire.
Cassie Tisdale, lead pastry chef at Red Stag Grill, says Thanksgiving has always been one of her favorite holidays. “An entire day centered on food is just about as good as it gets,” she says. And pumpkin pie tops her list of beloved dishes.
While she does believe it’s pretty difficult to beat a piece of good old-fashioned pumpkin pie, she also finds it fun to take a traditional flavor like pumpkin and add it to another dessert to make something a little different. “I made a pumpkin cheesecake for my family a few years ago, and it has quickly become a staple for our feast,” she says. “The mild flavor of the pumpkin works well with the tanginess of a cheesecake and makes a creamy, delicious and rich dessert that finishes off a meal beautifully.” She makes hers with a gingersnap crust. (See sidebar for recipe.)
Keeping tradition alive
John Stehling, co-owner of the Early Girl Eatery and King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffles, says that salt-cured ham has always been a holiday tradition in Southern Appalachia. It was carefully preserved just for such special occasions.
“Due to the time of year, most holiday dishes were based on foods that had been preserved or ‘put up’ by canning, pickling, drying or curing — usually salt, sometimes smoked,” he says. “Personally, I like ham more than turkey.”
For his family, another holiday favorite is salted, toasted nuts and seeds. “Convenience and quantity have influenced the direction of modern holiday meals,” he notes. “Now we go out, myself included, and buy toasted seeds and nuts at the store. You can order your ham online, have it delivered and sliced, and there’s always plenty available. What was special is now watered down.”
Stehling says the bottom line is this: “The holiday spirit that happens when you prepare and share a feast you have worked on together is what matters. Whatever you do, just make something together for the holidays.”