Thanksgiving: A Southern Thanksgiving

Garnished roasted turkey on platter over white background

A Southern Thanksgiving

Candied sweet potatoes, cornbread dressing and pecan and sweet potato pie are Thanksgiving staples for many people in the South. That hasn’t always been the case, says Pat Curtis, director of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute.

“Thanksgiving almost didn’t happen in the South,” she says. “And when the holiday was accepted, the traditional dinner was almost indistinguishable from a feast in Boston or New York—and cranberries don’t even grow south of New Jersey!”

In the 1700s and early- to mid-1800s, Thanksgiving was viewed as a Yankee holiday because of the holiday’s origin in New England and its trappings and traditions, such as turkey, cranberries and Pilgrims. There was no fixed date, with governors of individual states establishing the holiday every year by proclamation. By the 1840s Thanksgiving was widely celebrated in the northern states but only intermittently in the South.

The problem was that the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday came at the same time a tide of religious fervor was rising in the country. The same Protestant denominations that clamored for a national day of thanks were the same churches that fiercely advocated abolition. Many Southerners started viewing Thanksgiving as not only a Yankee holiday but an “abolitionist” holiday. Not until the end of post-Civil-War Republican rule did Southerners truly accept the holiday. When they did, they embraced a New England Thanksgiving in its entirety—turkey, cranberries, Pilgrims and all.

Fortunately for all of us, it didn’t take long for Southerners to start incorporating their own favorites—reflecting African, European and Native American influences—onto the menu. Corn was planted on at least half of every Alabama farm’s, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, and was consumed at nearly every meal until the 1940s. Cornbread dressing for the turkey was a natural.

Sweet potatoes, harvested in the fall, have historically been an important part of the diet in the Southeast because they are nutritious, easy to grow and delicious in dishes such as sweet potato casserole, candied sweet potatoes and sweet potato pie. For Southerners, sweet potato pie rivals pumpkin pie as star of the dessert table.

Squash, pumpkin and sweet potato pies had all became fashionable in England in the 18th century, with cooks in the American colonies following the trend. Southern cooks naturally gravitated to sweet potatoes as a favored ingredient. Now sweet potato pie has burst into national awareness thanks to gospel and R&B singer Patti LaBelle, who last year introduced sweet potato pies with her face on the box at Walmart.

The history of pecan pie is a little murkier, with various origin stories. All we really know is that pecans are native to the southern U.S. In fact, natives in Texas were shelling and eating pecans 8,000 years ago, archaeologists say. Although a kind of pecan pie is mentioned in publications dating back to the 1880s, Karo Syrup introduced the recipe for today’s pecan pie in the 1930s.

For more information contact Jacqueline Kochak at kochaja@auburn.edu or (334) 844-7465.