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Thanksgiving Olives: A Little Known Tradition

Posted by John Arlotta on

If you're hosting Thanksgiving this year, then the chances are good that popular staples such as sweet potatoes, turkey, gravy, cranberries, stuffing and even pumpkin pie will be on the menu. Olives? Maybe not so much. Most people that do use them during the holidays think of these tasty cylindrical bits as a side dish, garnish or appetizer—but there's so much more to them than just that! This article will discuss the history of olives at Thanksgiving, when and why they were being served at this American holiday dinner, along with some other fun facts and recipes. 

Are Olives a Thanksgiving Food?

We don't think about it much today, but for nearly one hundred years, two of the most unlikely foods, olives and celery, were absolute must-haves on the menu for every traditional Thanksgiving feast. 

Part of the appeal of celery and the reason it made its way onto Thanksgiving tables in the early days was that people viewed the fibrous veggie as “relatively unusual’’ and “something new.’’ Olives, on the other hand, were thought of as “exotic and kind of upper-crust.’’ Olives were also considered as a “celebration type of thing to eat as food,’’ as opposed to something you eat every day. 

Why Olives and Celery Lost their Top Spot

This olive and celery food trend dominated from the late 1800s until around the mid-1960s, where they took a backburner to up-and-coming menu items like green bean casserole and jello shaped like a fish or some other weird shape a family member brought to the feast (the latter of which many were probably glad when it stopped appearing at the table!). 

Moreover, the Globe showed the beginnings of celery infidelity as early as 1958 when they reported that a strange white vegetable (the cauliflower) was the next best thing at Thanksgiving dinner, proclaiming it a “cabbage with a college education!’’

bowl of olives

The History of Olives

Olives have been around for centuries, and they are still used today in many different ways. They are native to Asia Minor and later spread to the Mediterranean basin roughly 6,000 years ago

Olives were later cultivated by ancient Greeks and Romans, who enjoyed them as an appetizer with wine. They are now grown in many parts of the world, including places like Italy, Greece and Turkey. 

In ancient Greece and later medieval Europe, olives were considered a symbol of fertility. The notion has merit since modern science points out that eating olive oil can reduce inflammation in the body and help promote ovulation and fertility. Additionally, in some countries, such as France and Spain, it was thought that having a few olives in your belly would help with digestive issues. 

Olives Come to America

In the US, immigrants from southern and Mediterranean regions brought their love of olive foods to America - but they also had another thing up their sleeves: Thanksgiving! Black canned olives, a staple as ubiquitous today as canned tuna, came into vogue in the late 1880s and 1890s when production began in California. 

Olives had previously been only available from Europe, but after coming to America, the rest was history —and the small fruit (olives are surprisingly a fruit!) made their way into the turkey day spread. 

What to Use Olives for on Thanksgiving

If you are wondering how to put olives to good use on the Thanksgiving table, a gorgeous array of different colored olives looks lovely in a decorative garnish dish and makes for some good pre-dinner picking. They are also a welcome light appetizer to have before loading all the snooze-inducing turkey and carbs you can fit on your plate. 

You can also chop up some ripe olives into a tapenade and add lemon zest, olive oil and capers to the mixture. Then, you can dip some crusty bread in the tapenade or put it between the skin and turkey breast for a flavorful infusion. Another idea is to toss in some olives and chopped celery to stuffing such as walnut sage stuffing to keep up with old-time traditions.

Use Olive Oil for a Healthier Thanksgiving 

This Thanksgiving, you can make healthier choices by swapping out the butter, margarine and traditionally used oils for heart-healthy olive oil. Here’s a little secret: Your guests probably won’t notice your culinary sleight of hand. 

The following recipes use olive oil substitutions in delectable ways:

  • Turkey: Olive oil can be heated to high temps for a long time, and it performs well in the temperature range needed to roast the main event: The turkey! You can inject some extra virgin olive oil into the breast meat with a flavor injector to make it delicious and juicy. Also, if you want to get that picturesque brown, crispy skin, brush the entire bird with olive oil during the last 30 minutes of roasting. 
  • Gravy: This recipe by Tyler Florence uses olive oil instead of butter to make his tasty roasted turkey gravy. You can also make the gravy ahead of time by using roasting smoked turkey wings with vegetables.  

  • Green Beans: Keep this classic Thanksgiving side dish simple by steaming trimmed green beans and tossing some extra virgin olive oil on top of them. After the green beans are cooked all the way, season them with some Himalayan sea salt and cracked black pepper.  
  • Cranberry Sauce: This Southern Living recipe yields what is technically a "vinaigrette" cranberry sauce since you use olive oil and balsamic vinegar to make it. 
  • Mashed Potatoes: Want to make mashed potatoes that are vegan, dairy-free and delicious this Thanksgiving. The trick? Switch out the butter in the taters for some garlic-infused olive oil
  • Drizzled Vanilla Ice Cream: It sounds crazy until you try it, but vanilla ice cream that’s drizzled with some high-quality extra virgin olive oil is out of this world. Give the EVOO the pièce de résistance by sprinkling some Maldon flake salt on top of it. Pop that concoction on top of the holiday pie and see if it doesn’t start a new Thanksgiving tradition at your house!
  • Dark Chocolate Brownies: Kids, especially, like chocolate brownies at Thanksgiving. You can make them with this recipe by Zestful Kitchen, but try substituting out the extra virgin olive oil for blood orange olive oil to give the brownies a sweet citrus finish that pairs well with chocolate.  

Try Arlotta’s Cold-Pressed Olive Oils for the Holidays

As you can tell, olives are a versatile food that has been used for many purposes throughout history, including as an appetizer to celebrate Thanksgiving. Furthermore, Arlotta’s Food Studio’s cold-pressed olive oil is organic, kosher and fits into many meals as a healthy substitute for butter. 

Also, be sure to take a look around at our family-produced collection of cold-pressed olive oils that are sure to elevate your holiday meals. Arlotta’s flavored olive oils include award-winning varieties with infusions of organic herbs such as garlic, cayenne & habanero, rosemary and basil. 

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