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You’ve probably heard that Turkey may or may not have been on the menu when the Plymouth
colonists and Wampanoag Indians sat down to their harvest feast in 1621.
Venison and wild fowl are the only
two foods historians know for certain were consumed at the meal. And the men sent
to capture fowl could’ve snagged small, seasonal birds such as quail, pheasant and
duck, instead of the harder-to-catch wild turkey.
So why do we make such a big deal out of the Thanksgiving turkey? Why doesn’t Grandma
serve up venison on her best platter every November?
I did some googling. The pilgrims’ countrymen in England would dine on goose at special
meals. Americans who later took up the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving may have
substituted one big bird for another, because wild turkeys were more abundant here
In addition, large birds were a lot more affordable than giving everyone steaks or
butchering all the laying hens. This quote about how the turkey became popular at
Thanksgiving, from an article
by Michelle Tsai, explains it well:
Among the big birds, turkey was ideal for a fall feast. Turkeys born in the spring
would spend about seven months eating insects and worms on the farm, growing to about
10 pounds by Thanksgiving. They were cheaper than geese, which were more difficult
to raise, and cheaper by the pound than chickens.
Americans started eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the mid-1800s, after Godey’s
Lady’s Book editor Sarah
Josepha Hale began a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. At the
time, the holiday was celebrated mostly in New England on a different day in each
Hale published editorials and wrote to several presidents. Finally, in 1863, Abraham
Lincoln—hoping to boost the war-weary country’s morale—supported legislation establishing
Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Supposedly, Hale popularized a holiday
menu of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. But nostalgic
images of the Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a huge feast didn’t enter popular
consciousness until later in the century.
Turns out the pilgrims and Wampanoag didn’t
eat pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce in 1621, either. Not much about
our modern Thanksgiving has to do with how the Pilgrims actually celebrated their
first harvest—except the most important part, gathering with loved ones to be grateful
for what we have.