Think of the core Thanksgiving sides: sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and canned cranberry sauce with wiggling rings still appetizingly intact are a sure bet. They’re iconic! Classic! Traditional! Delicious? That’s open for debate.
Tracking down the origins of these mainstay Thanksgiving sides is as easy as saying “hard pass” when your family’s legendary gelatin salad is handed around the table:
“It’s all due to the rise of advertising in the early 1900s, specifically to the female market,” says Rick Rodgers, author of Thanksgiving 101. “That’s when you could start buying things like gelatin salad, canned pumpkin, canned cranberry sauce — this was a revelation for home cooks, who saw their job get a lot easier and integrated convenience products right away.”
So let’s dig in:
First, all you need to know about sweet potato casserole is that it was literally invented by the marshmallow lobby. And a century later, we’re still playing into their fluffy, sugary hands.
According to an article from Saveur Magazine documented by the Library of Congress, the first recipe of mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows dates to 1917, when “marketers of Angelus Marshmallows hired Janet McKenzie Hill, founder of the Boston Cooking School Magazine, to develop recipes for a booklet designed to encourage home cooks to embrace the candy as an everyday ingredient.”
(Is anyone surprised? We all knew the sweet potatoes were just a vessel to eat marshmallows in post-summer camp adulthood.)
Cranberries, however, have less sinister and more practical origins. First, they’re one of the OGs of Thanksgiving. “Cranberries are indigenous to North America and typically go back to the Pilgrims,” says Bruce Forbes, author of America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. “While the British had other berries, cranberries were ours. How we serve them has changed, but they’ve been there.” (Sweet potatoes, however, hail from South America, unlike North American pumpkins.)
But we’d all be kidding ourselves if we thought the pilgrims plopped an aluminum can down on the first feast (whatever that may have looked like, but we digress). While canned cranberry jelly was first produced in 1912, its popularity can be traced to the 1930s with the establishment of the Ocean Spray collective, according to The Kitchn. That’s when cranberry farming began the process of wet harvesting, flooding cranberry bogs so all the berries float to the top (as seen in myriad Ocean Spray commercials involving bearded dudes in really tall boots). Wet harvesting was less precise so there were more imperfect berries ready to be mashed and canned. Voila! Surplus!
Today, Americans consume 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce every holiday season, according to Ocean Spray. To put it into Thanksgiving context, that’s enough sauce to fill 50 Macy’s Day Parade Balloons.
Whatever food trends the future may bring (Rodgers says that this year it’s preparing everything from scratch and accommodating dietary restrictions), the classic sides are here to stay.
We may just be spending hours creating vegan, gluten-free, DIY versions of the recipes that have endured because of their convenience.