It’s a shopper’s dream for Americans stocking up for Thanksgiving dinner. I came to realize this first hand the other night when I volunteered to go to HyVee for some medicine for my daughter and I ended up bringing home a turkey and a ham and nearly forgetting the item for which I made the trip.

I was distracted by the fact I received a free turkey with the purchase of a frozen ham. Ch-Ching

Whether it is 15 cent per pound potatoes or 40 cent per pound frozen turkeys, consumers are making out like bandits at their corner grocer.  The traditional Thanksgiving produce items – notably cranberries and sweet potatoes – dominated food page promotions. The Nov. 20 report of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Retail Report shows that 10,237 stores promoted cranberries from Nov. 14 to Dec. 1, up from 3,811 stores the previous week. Likewise, the number of retailers promoting sweet potatoes rose from less than 1,700 stores on Nov. 13 to 12,482 stores with promotions reported Nov. 20. Beyond that, prices are mostly lower; from the USDA report

Turkey, trimmings and decorations for holiday meals were the focus this week. Many retailers altered their ad schedules to fit around the holiday with no new ads coming out until after Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving table centerpieces, holiday pantry staples and recipe suggestions were also widely featured. Cranberries and sweet potatoes were the top produce items featured. Sweet potatoes, celery, pineapple, asparagus and grapes were the top five overall items. Retail ads overall were up 13% from the previous week.

Green beans and tomatoes on-the-vine rounded out the vegetable top five. If all packages of russet potatoes were counted as one items then russets would have been the 4th in the vegetable top five and 5th overall. If all counts of navel oranges were counted as one item then oranges would have been 2nd in the fruit top five and 4th in the overall. Navel Oranges, clementines and avocados completed the top five fruit items.

The top five fruit items accounted for 67% of all fruit ads this week while the top five vegetable ads accounted for 60% of all vegetable ads. Two of the five fruits in the major ad items category for the week were higher priced than the same week a year ago. Navel oranges, with season just getting underway, were 19% above last year and grapes were 2% above last year. Hass Avocados were 20% less expensive, pineapples were 9% lower and clementines were 6% lower in weighted average price than last year.

 Sweet potatoes in the pre-Thanksgiving holiday period were 30% less expensive than last year, along with celery 39%, round green beans 28% and  asparagus 7% lower in price. Of the other 3 vegetables that were major ad items for this week, celery at 99 cents was 36% lower and asparagus was 7% cheaper. Only carrots, mushrooms and on-the-vine tomatoes were higher in price. As used here, major ad items are defined as being regularly surveyed produce items that were featured in 3,000+ stores for the week


Just how close will our Thanksgiving dinner be to the original feast of 1621? Did they have Cool Whip or Craisins back then? Not so much,  says one food historian I found at this Web site . From Kathleen Curtin:

For most Americans, a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal includes a turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin pie (or sweet potato pie if you hail from the South.). While there are numerous regional and ethnic variations, this basic menu has not changed much in the last two hundred years. Nor is the standard menu much older than that. Our modern holiday fare bears little resemblance to the food eaten at the three-day 1621 harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony, the event now recalled as the “First Thanksgiving.”

The Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists often ate wild turkey, however it was not specifically mentioned in connection with that 1621 harvest celebration. Edward Winslow said only that four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of “fowl” – more likely from the scenario to be seasonal waterfowl such as ducks and geese. And what about the stuffing?

Yes, the Wampa-noag and English did occasionally stuff the birds and fish, typically with herbs, onions or oats (English only).
If cranberries were served at the harvest celebration, they appeared in Wampanoag dishes, or possibly to add tartness to an English sauce. It would be 50 years before an Englishman men-tioned boiling this New England berry with sugar for a “Sauce to eat with …Meat.” In 1621 England, sugar was expensive; in 1621 New Plymouth, there may not have been any of this im-ported spice at all.

Potatoes, which had originated in South America, had not yet made their way into the diet of the Wampanoag in 1621 (though the Wampanoag did eat other local varieties of tubers). By 1621, potatoes, both sweet and white, had traveled across the Atlantic to Europe but they had not been generally adopted into the English diet. The sweet potato, originating in the Caribbean, was cul-tivated in Spain and imported into England. It was a rare dainty available to the wealthy, who believed it to be a potent aphrodisiac. The white potato was virtually unknown by the average early 17th-century Englishman. Only a few gentlemen botanists and gardeners were trying to grow this colonial oddity.

But surely there was pumpkin pie to celebrate the harvest? Pumpkin -- probably yes, but pie – probably not. Pumpkins and squashes were native to New England. Certain varieties had been introduced from the Americas into Europe by 1500 where they gained widespread acceptance (as had turkey, another New World native). In Plymouth, the specific American varieties were new to the colonists, but hardly exotic. However, the fledgling Plymouth Colony probably did not possess the ingredients to make piecrust (butter & wheat flour) nor an oven in which to bake it. The now-familiar custardy pumpkin pie, made with pureed pumpkin, was several generations away from invention. The earliest written recipes for pumpkin pie came after 1621, and those treated the pumpkin more like apples, slicing it and sometimes frying the slices before placing them in a crust. (There were no apples in 1621 Plymouth, either. Apples are not native to North America.)

The typical menu of Thanksgiving dinner is actually more than 200 years younger than that 1621 celebration and reflects both the holiday’s New England roots and a Victorian nostalgia for an imaginary time when hearth and home, family and community, were valued over progress and change. But while we have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available in 1621, just what was served is a tougher nut to crack.


For more speculation about the real menu at the first Thanksgiving, follow the link.