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Last Updated on November 23, 2021

Sitting down with friends and family for Thanksgiving dinner is not just an instated American tradition, it’s an event stuffed full of historical curiosity. Commonly found at the center of the celebrations, and in the middle of a well decorated, multicolored, and busy dinner table is a (hopefully) perfectly cooked turkey with all the fixings. On this national day of tryptophan indulgence, why do Americans gorge on turkey and not another sumptuous repast?

It was the Pilgrims that shared turkey with the natives at the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621, right? Some very smart people have argued that this is not the case, and that the answer of why turkey is served at Thanksgiving can be attributed to a range of factors spread over years of American history.

But let’s start at the beginning, with the Pilgrims. 

Was Turkey Served at the First Thanksgiving? 

First off, it is important to clarify what the “First Thanksgiving” event actually entailed. Yes, there was a meal involved, but it didn’t stop there. Eyewitness accounts show there were quite a few meals served at the initial Thanksgiving event in 1621 which lasted for three days. While today it is celebrated as a family event where we give thanks for the things we have and reunite with Grandma, the 1621 meeting was primarily a political gathering.

According to historical writer Andrew Beahrs in his book “Twain’s Feast, Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens”, attendees of the gathering included fifty Pilgrims and ninety Wampanoag natives. Grandma might not have even been invited, as it was a predominantly male-only event setup to cement a military alliance.

Bearhs then goes on to write that the Wampanoag brought with them five deer, and the Pilgrims provided wild “fowl”. These eyewitness accounts belong to Edward Winslow, who wrote a letter in 1621 recounting the preparation for the gathering. In it he wrote:

“Our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.”

While some argue that fowl could have referred to turkeys which were native to the area, historians believe that the fowl in question was actually wild ducks and geese, the most common and plentiful waterfowl in Massachusetts Bay. 

When Did Turkey Become a Thanksgiving Staple?

Until 200 years after the “First Thanksgiving,” there was still not much thought given to the three-day gathering. Besides Winslow’s letter there was no 17th century reference made to this seemingly underwhelming historical event, and the very name wasn't coined until Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrim Forefathers was published in 1841.

Historians attribute the rise of Thanksgiving, and thus the rise of the turkey to the center platter, to prominent writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Her many professional acclamations include the famous children’s poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” founder of the American Ladies Magazine, and a 40-year reign as editor of Godey’s Lady Book. 

In addition to being a dedicated advocate for women's education, Hale also carried a mission to instate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her mission was driven by personal anecdotes of her holiday traditions in New England published in books and editorials and an underlying motive to announce the holiday to ease the civil war tension between the northern and southern states. 

Through many published editorials in Godey’s and her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England, Hale alluded to and romanticized the thanksgiving turkey as a focal point in the lavish celebratory meal. In a passage from Northwood, she writes:

“The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of its basting.”

After years of campaigning and personally lobbying governors and numerous members of congress for Thanksgiving to be made a national holiday, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863. With the formation of the new national holiday, the salivating recounts of Hales holiday turkeys slowly inspired the culinary blueprint for a proper celebration. 

The Rise of Turkey

Despite Hale’s beautifully descriptive narratives of her New England turkeys, the dish initially shared the glory of the new holiday with various other spreads, including seafood selections and assorted waterfowl and poultry. In the famous 1877 collection of recipes by Ohio housewives, Buckeye Cookery & Practical Housekeeping, turkey was largely underrepresented.

As Andrew Beahrs states in Twain’s Feast, the cookbook “suggested oyster soup, boiled cod, corned beef, and roasted goose as good Thanksgiving choices, accompanied by brown bread, pork and beans, 'delicate cabbage,' doughnuts, 'superior biscuit,' ginger cakes, and an array of fruits. Chicken pies were a particular favorite and seem to have been served nearly as often as turkey (usually as an additional dish rather than a substitute).

Needless to say, the turkey had some competition in the early days of Thanksgiving. 

Around the time Thanksgiving was made a national holiday, a possibly unintentional blurring of written accounts by Winslow and his fellow colonist William Bradford could have added to the Thanksgiving turkey mythology. 

As mentioned previously, Winslow referred to “fowling” in preparation for the 1621 gathering but no direct mention of turkey. Bradford, on the other hand, made plain reference to “a great store of wild Turkies” in his 1651 journal “Of Plimoth Plantation.” These two accounts were sometimes confused, helping to propagate the myth of the “First Thanksgiving” featuring turkey as the main dish.  

According to historian Ashley Rose Young of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the turkey later rose to become the staple Thanksgiving dish for a few practical reasons. 

First, the bird was plentiful in early North America, with experts estimating as many as 10 million turkeys in America prior to European arrival. These turkeys often lived on people’s properties, and unlike cows and chickens, did not serve alternative harvesting purposes. Turkeys were also much more practical for large celebrations, as one bird could feed many people.

Another reason, according to Young, that turkey and other sides like pumpkins and cranberry sauce became principal Thanksgiving food was because of the constant migration from New England to the rest of America.  Young says, “Turkey became the national dish that we eat on Thanksgiving through a decades and century-long process of the regional foods of New England consumed during traditional harvest festivals, making their way through the United States as Americans living on the east coast and in the U.S. south moved westward over time."

From a modern standpoint, today’s farming practices continue to keep the turkey large in size and affordable. 

No Props to the Pilgrims

No Thanksgiving feast is complete without a cooked turkey and various scrumptious sides. Yet, we shouldn’t thank the Pilgrims for this delicious tradition. Instead, Americans should tip their hats to the men and women who fought hard to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, hundreds of years following the initial gathering between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag natives. 

Despite not likely being served at the “First Thanksgiving,” turkey has made its way into the center of the proverbial table. The rise in popularity can be attributed to 19th-century political lobbying through written publications, misunderstood textual accounts and conjecture, and the practicality of availability, farming, and human migration from the east coast to the west. 

While it may not seem as romantic a story as the “First Thanksgiving” peace gathering, the rise of the turkey tells a far more interesting story of American history spread over centuries of historical events. 

References:

Cunningham, John M. "Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?". Encyclopedia Britannica, Invalid Date, https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-eat-turkey-on-thanksgiving. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Maranzini, Barbara. “How the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday.” history.com 19 Nov 2019. Web. 17 Nov 2021

Krulwich, Robert. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies.” NPR. 23 Nov 2011. Web. 17 Nov 2021

DeCiccio, Emily. “Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?”. The News with Shepard Smith, Invalid Date. <https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/24/why-do-we-eat-turkey-on-thanksgiving-the-news-with-shepard-smith.html> Web. 17 Nov 2021.

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