The Oldest Thanksgiving Desserts


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Well written history books describing the earliest cookery in North America always include the very important role of indigenous peoples in helping new settlers learn about the foods of the New World. Fascinating, is the marrying of the two cultures and the dishes that were turned out as a result. In the bookFood – The Gastronomic Story by Evan Jones talks about the early incorporation of corn and beans into the diets of the pilgrims. The indigenous peoples taught the settlers how to grow beans, using tall corn stalks as a pole. An early dish that was taught to the settlers was msickquatash, a corn/ bean dish eaten by the Indians, (although the use of the name Indians is currently considered to be by most, inappropriate in Canada, it was used in the writing of this book and is still widely used in the U.S.)

The first American Thanksgiving dinner is widely believed to have been in 1621, and consisted of venison, roast duck and roast goose, clams eels, wheat and corn breads, leeks, watercress, wild plums, homemade wine. Not a turkey or pumpkin pie in sight. Settlers from Britain in the New World used corn and incorporated it into their style of cooking. As time passed and the Thanksgiving feast changed, desserts such as the two following were served. Indian pudding is a very old dish and is included in many old cookbooks. It demonstrates the use of corn(in the form of corn meal, to make what was considered a sweet dessert often served on Thanksgiving.

Indian pudding is a very old dish and is included in many old cookbooks. The Fort George Bill of Fare includes a receipt that was from the Pocumtuc Housewife: A Guide to Domestic Cookery by: Several Ladies 1805.

Indian Pudding 

IMG_2102 2

  • 4 cups milk
  • 5-7 tbsp. cornmeal
  • 3-4 tbsp. molasses
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon or ginger
  • Heat 2 cups of mile to almost boiling, and add cornmeal and stir well. Add in molasses, salt and spices and mix together. Pour into a large greased baking dish and pour in remaining milk. Bake at 325 degrees for about two hours, stirring often.






Fast-forward two hundred years. I baked a traditional Indian Pudding using modern corn meal, molasses and a gas oven instead of an open-hearth fireplace. When I tasted the dessert, it tasted bland to my highly sugarized tastes but I topped it with some molasses and whipped cream and it tasted like fine custard with substance.

Thanksgiving Pudding 1 from the Boston Cooking School Cook Book 1917


  • 4 cups scalded milk                 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1 ¼ cups rolled crackers         1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sugar                                1 ½ cups raisins
  • 4 eggs                                            ½ grated nutmeg

Pour milk over crackers and let stand until cool; add sugar, eggs slightly beaten, nutmeg, salt, and butter; parboil raisins until soft, by cooking in boiling water to cover; seed, and add to mixture; turn into buttered pudding dish and bake slowly two and one-half hours, stirring after first half-hour to prevent raisins from settling ; serve with Brandy Sauce.

Brandy Sauce

  • ¼ cup butter                       Yolks 2 eggs
  • 1 cup powdered sugar     Whites 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons brandy       ½ cup milk or cream

Cream the butter, add sugar gradually, then brandy very slowly, well beaten yolks, and milk or cream. Cook over hot water until it thickens as a custard, pour onto beaten whites.

Fast forward 100 years. I baked a Thanksgiving pudding 1 and found it to have an interesting taste that was moist with much of the taste from the raisins and sauce. But there is an appeal to adding a simpler dessert to the Thanksgiving feast and remembering our roots and times when food was appreciated more because of the work that went into growing and preparing each dish. It was a time when convenience in the kitchen and the luxury of so many easily acquired ingredients was not a part of  people’s lives.




Historic Thanksgiving Menus for Prisoners and Presidents in U.S.



State dining room at the White House 
Dining Room in Alcatraz set for a festive occasion – Courtesy of National Park Service 

Strangely enough, the meal on the trays of the inmates at the Alcatraz prison in California and on the grand tables of the Presidents of the United States historically contained many of the same main dishes. The food traditions of Thanksgiving have remained basically the same for the past two hundred years, with regional differences, on many tables across North America. It is common to cook turkey with dressing, potatoes, root vegetables, and pumpkin pie as part of the Thanksgiving meal. defines the widely accepted beginnings of the celebration of Thanksgiving. “In 1621, The Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states.”

It is a strong tradition wherever you are in America to have a fine meal on Thanksgiving to show appreciation for the harvest or just to celebrate the holiday.

Alcatraz Thanksgiving Menu from Alcatraz Dining Room 

Alcatraz was a maximum security prison built on an rocky island off the coast of San Francisco. From 1934 to 1963, 250 prisoners at a time were held within this penitentiary. Alcatraz is now a National Historic Site visited by thousands of visitors a year. The dining room is now an empty space full of silent memories of the Thanksgivings shared by inmates.

The prisoners on Alcatraz ate Thanksgiving dinner on their metal trays, in the dining room, and white sheets were repurposed as table cloths. A prisoner was considered to be fortunate to have a job in the kitchen assisting the cooks and much of the kitchen staff was comprised of prisoners. The cutlery was humble and counted, lest it be stolen as a weapon and especially the knives were watched closely in both the kitchen and in the dining room.

Men being punished for their disruptive behaviour while in the prison were held in solitary confinement, for a maximum of 19 days and the restricted diet was part of the punishment. The cells were dark and meals were served three times a day through a small window and eaten in the cell. A typical dinner was served at noon that consisted of ½ bowl of soup, 1 bowl of tea and four slices of bread. However, even in “solitary”, Thanksgiving was celebrated, as illustrated by the noon dinner served on Thanksgiving Day, November 28,1946 to the prisoners in solitary confinement.

  • Peanut Soup
  • Roast Turkey with Celery Dressing
  • Candied Sweet Potatoes
  • Giblet Gravy
  • Buttered Peas
  • Cranberry Sauce
  • Fresh Grapes
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Hot Biscuits
  • Bread, Oleo (margarine), coffee

A Thanksgiving menu from The White House Cook Book by Mrs.F.L.Gillette and Hugo Ziemann dated 1877

In the White House the presidents and their families have always dined on fine historic china, with the best linens and silverware on the table. The tables and chairs were built of the best wood and skilled chefs cooked their meals. Service was formal and servants would have brought each course separately to the table. Here is a sample menu from a Thanksgiving feast at the White House, prior to 1877.

  • Oysters on a half shell
  • Cream of Chicken Soup
  • Fried Smelts
  • Sauce Tartare
  • Roast Turkey and Cranberry Sauce
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Baked Squash and Boiled Onions
  • Parsnip Fritters
  • Olives
  • Chicken Salad
  • Venison Pastry
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Charlotte Russe
  • Almond Ice Cream
  • Lemon Jelly
  • Hickory Nut Cake
  • Cheese
  • Fruits
  • Coffee

Both Presidents and prisoners have enjoyed their annual Thanksgiving dinner for many years and it is almost certain that each person had memories of their childhood festivities however grand or humble.




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