Most Americans associate Thanksgiving with popcorn. However, it turns out that the long-held belief that Squanto and the other Wampanoag Indian visitors brought popcorn to the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth is just a myth. That said, historians are quite sure that roasted corn was one of the items on the first Thanksgiving dinner menu.
Popcorn Not Eaten in Atlantic Northeast Area
Urban myths that resonate deeply with a cultural psyche are difficult to discredit, and that seems to be the case with the long-standing myth regarding Native Americans bringing a basket of popcorn to the first Thanksgiving dinner.
Archeologists have thoroughly debunked this myth, but many (if not most) Americans continue to believe it. It’s not really all that surprising though, given nearly all Americans were taught some variation of this fact back in elementary and middle school.
The facts are, however, that the type of corn the Wampanoag Indians in the Massachusetts and Virginia area grew was related to the Northern Flint variety that does not pop (relatively few varieties of popcorn have enough water to pop explosively and form popcorn). Furthermore, according to James W. Baker, vice president and chief historian for Plimoth Plantation, no signs of popcorn have ever been uncovered in archaeological excavations in the area.
National Myth About Popcorn at First Thanksgiving Dinner Created in 1880s
The myth of popcorn at the first Thanksgiving dinner table was part of the Manifest Destiny frenzy that defined mid-19th century U.S. history. Well-known food historian Andrew F. Smith says the Pilgrims-and-popcorn myth dates all the way back to the 1880s. This historical period saw many immigrants arriving in the country, and a number of national myths were created by stories in magazines and newspapers (and even school textbooks) to help Americanize all the newcomers.
Smith notes that popcorn was especially popular during this period. “Popcorn was sold in grocery stores, popped at fairs, and peddled at sporting events.” Other scholars also note that references to popcorn become more common in the mid-19th century. The first known popcorn poem appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1853.
By the late 1860s popular had evolved into an important agricultural commodity. Advertisements from the era offer popcorn gifts and popcorn for sale as a novelty item. Of note, local varieties of corn must not have popped well, because an ad from popcorn entrepreneur J. A. Hathaway noted his popcorn had been imported from Brazil and then grown and acclimated in Cincinnati for two years.
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