Ever wondered why Thanksgiving is all about turkey and not ham, chicken, venison, beef or corn?
Almost 9 out of 10 Americans eat turkey during this celebratory meal, whether it’s roasted, fried, grilled, or otherwise cooked for the occasion.
One might think it’s because of what the Pilgrims, a year after they landed in what is now Massachusetts, and their Indigenous Wampanoag guests ate during their first Thanksgiving in 1621. Or because the turkey originally came from America.
But it has more to do with how Americans celebrated the holiday in the late 18th century.
Did you eat it or not?
The only firsthand record of what the pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving comes from Edward Winslow. He noted that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, arrived with 90 men and the two communities celebrated together for three days.
Winslow wrote little about the menu other than mentioning five deer the Wampanoag brought and that the meal included “poultry” which could be any number of wild birds found in the area including ducks, geese and turkeys.
Historians know that key ingredients in today’s traditional dishes were not available during that first Thanksgiving.
These include potatoes and green beans. The likely lack of wheat flour and sugar shortages in New England at the time ruled out pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. A type of squash, a Native American staple, was almost certainly served alongside corn and shellfish.
A revived tradition
Food history historians like myself have noted that most modern Thanksgiving traditions began in the mid-1800s, more than two centuries after the pilgrims’ first harvest celebration.
Reinventing the pilgrimage celebration as a national holiday was largely the work of Sarah Hale. Born in New Hampshire in 1784, as a young widow she published poetry to earn a living. Most notably, she wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
In 1837 Hale became editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Strictly religious and family-oriented, she fought for the creation of an annual national holiday of Thanksgiving and Praise, commemorating the pilgrims’ harvest festival.
Hale and her colleagues relied on the 1621 lore for historical justification. Like many of her contemporaries, she assumed that the Pilgrims ate turkey at their first festival because edible wild turkeys were plentiful in New England.
This campaign lasted for decades, partly due to a lack of enthusiasm among white Southerners. Many of them considered an earlier celebration among Virginia colonists honoring supply ships arriving in Jamestown in 1610 to be the more important precedent.
The absence of Southerners serving in Congress during the Civil War allowed President Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Marketing campaign for Turkey
Godey’s, along with other media outlets, hailed the holiday, packing its pages with New England recipes and menus that featured turkey prominently.
“We dare say that most of Thanksgiving will take the form of gastronomic delights,” predicted the Augusta Chronicle of Georgia in 1882. “Any person who can afford or get hold of a turkey will be the noble one today.” sacrifice American fowl.”
One reason: A roast turkey makes a perfect festive centerpiece.
A second is that turkey is also convenient for serving large crowds. Turkeys are larger than other birds that are raised or hunted for their meat, and it is cheaper to produce a turkey than a cow or pig.
The bird’s characteristics prompted Europeans to include turkeys in their diets after they colonized the Americas. In England, King Henry VIII regularly enjoyed turkey on Christmas Day a century before the Feast of the Pilgrims.
By the mid-19th century, the bird was cementing its position as the most popular Christmas dish in England.
One reason was that in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge sought redemption by replacing the impoverished Cratchit family’s scrawny goose with a giant turkey.
Published in 1843, Dickens’ immediately best-selling depiction of the praying family dinner would soon inspire Hale’s idealized Thanksgiving.
Although the historical record is hazy, I think it’s possible that the pilgrims were eating turkey in 1621. It was certainly served at celebrations in New England during the colonial era.