Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

What people eat can give hints as to which part of the world they originally came from. In fact, those working on a family history can get a head start by making a list of foods they enjoy on special occasions.

Since the 1860s it has been traditional for the United States to observe a special day of giving thanks each November. The traditional Thanksgiving meal usually includes a turkey. This icon of the season, a large and crafty bird, was taken from the New World to Spain by the Spaniards, wandered around the Mediterranean countries for awhile and was finally “discovered” by the rest of the world in Turkey.

The wild turkey is a magnificent bird. In 1784 Benjamin Franklin wrote his daughter, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country … the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”

With the turkey at the Thanksgiving feast come cranberries. These natives of North American bogs are the main ingredient in a sauce that is an essential part of the holiday menu. From earliest times cranberries were used by Native Americans for food and for preventing urinary tract infections and scurvy. Today dried cranberries are often added to muffins and salads, and the juice has become a health drink.

White potatoes from Chile and Peru, usually mashed and served with gravy, are a Thanksgiving classic. Sweet potatoes from tropical America and the Caribbean are often candied in the North and made into pie in the U.S. South.

In the old days a casserole of green beans, lima beans or corn (all from Central America) was a favorite contribution to the feast. Today corn on the cob and fresh-flown-in green beans often take their place.

For dessert the choice of “all-American” pies includes pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate (from Mexico and Central America) cream and pecan (from central United States). The favorite ice cream flavor in the United States, vanilla, is made from the seed pod of the vanilla orchid of Mexico and Central America. This geographical area is also the source of chocolate for ice cream and chocolate sauce. Strawberries for ice cream trace their ancestors to both North and South America. Their flavor and sweetness come from the tiny strawberry of eastern North America, which met the large, yellowish berry from Chile in Europe in the 18th century.

Favorites for Thanksgiving snacks and nibbling, in addition to pecans, are peanuts, cashews and Brazil nuts from the Amazon region of South America.

American foods are also great favorites around the world. Italian cooking would not be the same without polenta (cornmeal) and tomatoes, nor Swiss without chocolate nor German without potatoes.