Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Katie H. asks: Why do we eat turkey on thanksgiving when the pilgrims didn’t?

thanksgiving-turkeyEvery year on the fourth Thursday in November, over three hundred million Americans sit down at a table filled with culinary delights. From overstuffed turkeys to whipped-cream-topped pumpkin pies, it’s probably not a shock to learn that many of the traditional foods we eat on Thanksgiving today were not on the menu four centuries ago when the Pilgrims sat down to the (not actually) “first” Thanksgiving in America. In fact, of the two first-hand accounts we have of the thanksgiving in question, there isn’t even a mention of them eating turkey.  So why is it the staple food for the holiday?

To begin with, let’s address the whole “first Thanksgiving” thing. Just about every American kid is taught at a very early age that the first Thanksgiving in America took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. But this isn’t true. In fact, this wasn’t even the first Thanksgiving for the group now called the “Pilgrims”*. They had several days of thanksgiving before then at various times and none of them were an annual thing. These days were simply a particular time where they had something significant to thank God about, so would set aside a day to do so.

So who actually celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America? Nobody knows for sure owing to how common these days of thanks were in the New World. Three popular examples that are often referenced as the actual “firsts” and that pre-date the Pilgrims’ autumn of 1621 date include one on September 8, 1565, with this day of thanksgiving celebrated by a group of Spaniards lead by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé, in Saint Augustine, Florida. (Interestingly, Menéndez de Avilé even reportedly invited the Timucua tribe to dine with them on that Thanksgiving. Contrary to popular belief, inviting the local Natives to the feast does not appear to be something the Pilgrims did in their famed Thanksgiving, at least not initially.)

Moving on to 1598 in San Elizario, Texas, Spanish explorer Juan de Onate, along with those with him, on the banks of the Rio Grande held a thanksgiving festival after they successfully crossed over 350 miles of Mexican desert.

Fast-forwarding a bit more in history, on December 4, 1619, 38 settlers landed on James River on a ship called the Margaret, about 20 miles from Jamestown. Their charter required that the day of landing be set aside as a day of thanksgiving both on that first date and every year after.

Now back to turkey. As previously alluded to, there is no record of the Pilgrims specifically eating turkey at the autumn of 1621 event. The only two surviving first-hand accounts of the event, a letter from Edward Winslow in December of 1621 and a passage in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, simply mention they ate waterfowl (meaning duck or goose), cornbread or corn porridge, and venison (deer).

That said, wild turkey, while not mentioned in that account, was referred to in other historical accounts as a meat commonly eaten during the years of the Plymouth settlement. It’s also noteworthy that the general consensus is that turkeys taste best in the autumn because, as the weather cools and the days shorten, their hormone levels shift and they naturally gain muscle and fat as they gorge themselves in preparation for winter.

It might seem odd to us to think about today in the age of modern food storage techniques and supermarkets with efficient and worldwide supply chains, but historically when a given meat was “in-season” played a big part in when it was most commonly eaten en masse.  (This is also, in large part, why ham is the traditional meat in America for Easter.) Sure, if one was hungry any time of year and a turkey walked by, a hunter wouldn’t be bothered by the fact that it tastes better or is more meaty a different time of year- it’s going to be dinner either way.  But the fact that turkeys were extremely plentiful and well-fattened around the time of year when Thanksgiving started to be celebrated annually in New England no doubt contributed to it ultimately being the choice main protein dish for the event.

And this fact may also have led to the Pilgrims eating it at their Autumn of 1621 event, even if there is no specific documented evidence of this. That said, it should also be noted that fresh venison and rich waterfowl were more highly sought after and considered better delicacies in 1621 than wild turkey, which weren’t the huge breasted, ultra meaty variety so beloved today- that farmed variety took a lot of selective breeding to bring about.

So, if turkey was at best more or a less a side dish at Plymouth’s Thanksgiving and at worst not even present at all, how did it become the main protein eaten during the modern-day version of the holiday?

To begin with, in 1789, President George Washington declared a national day of thanks set for November 26 in honor of independence and establishing a constitutional government. The focus of that day was mostly on prayer, but the President did donate food and beer to imprisoned debtors in New York City. Due to the Plymouth connection, New Englanders took this national day of thanks a bit more seriously by not only dedicating a whole day of prayer, but also puncturing it with a large meal. A roast turkey was part of that in some households, thanks to turkeys being in-season and so plentiful in the region, as previously mentioned.

It should be noted, however, that during the new country’s first few decades, the exact day of thanks, if any, was often up to the state (though a few presidents did sporadically declare certain dates as a “national day of thanks”). Point being, a national day of thanksgiving as we think of it wasn’t really a thing.

This all brings us to the 1830s and the remarkable Sarah Josepha Hale – who today you might simply know as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Hale’s background was more than a little humble and, when she grew up, while things briefly changed for the better, when her beloved husband suddenly died, she was left with five children to raise alone and little money to do it with. (She would go on to wear only black in public for the rest of her long life as a sign of perpetual mourning for her husband.)

Given all this, you might think she wouldn’t exactly be a prime candidate for becoming one of the most influential women in American history, but that’s exactly what happened thanks to her brains and her family prizing education, even for girls, which was a rarity at the time.

Unable to attend school, her parents home-schooled her in the beginning and her advanced education was handled by her brother, Haratio. You see, with no college of her own to attend, Horatio took care of the problem. After he’d attend classes at Dartmouth, he’d come home and teach his sister what he’d learned that day and, once he had done so, they’d study together. (When Haratio was eventually awarded a diploma from Dartmouth, he, in turn, awarded Sarah with a diploma from the Horatio Gates Buel College and declared that she had graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in the Arts.)

In any event, after her husband of nine year’s death, Hale simultaneously raised five kids on her own, made hats to make ends meet as her day job, and by night wrote what would come to be a huge hit in the novel Northwood: Life North and South (in England called: A New England Tale).

She then leveraged her success with that novel to become the first female editor of a magazine in the United States, a position she used to exclusively promote American authors, which few in that industry did because there simply weren’t enough accomplished American authors to fill the pages at the time. Most such publications in America copied works from English authors; Hale chose to get around the problem a different way- she wrote about half of every edition of the magazine herself. (Along with publishing nearly fifty volumes in her lifetime outside of the journal, comprising various novels and books of poetry.)

Hale’s influence can be seen all throughout the United States for the four decades or so she held her position, having a significant effect on how women dressed; what they cooked; what literature they read; how they conducted themselves morally, etc (sort of the Martha Stewart / Oprah of her day).  Beyond topics intended to be read by women, she also wrote on a huge range of subjects for men as well, including random things like house design, with many of her magazine’s architectural house plans being popularly used by builders all over the country. Her promotion of various budding American authors also saw many of those still remembered today from the era gain popularity partially through the magazine she was editor of.

She also, controversially at the time, tirelessly promoted the idea that women should be educated, eventually even helping to found Vassar College, as well as Seaman’s Aid Society which is an organization that helps women obtain useful job skills, as well as give them a place to live and food to eat while they attempt to re-establish themselves (in the beginning after the loss of a husband).

Bringing us back to Thanksgiving, influenced by the relatively common tradition of an annual day of thanksgiving in New England at the time, Hale eventually became enamored with the Pilgrims’ 1621 day of thanksgiving that she had read about in the aforementioned passage by William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation. Thus, by the 1830s, she set her sights on the United States having an official national day of thanksgiving, more or less based on the mythology that had sprung up around the 1621 Pilgrim thanksgiving (much of which Hale either created or perpetuated from existing myths about the event).

Through her widely read publication, she promoted the idea by writing about the need for collective prayer, family gatherings, and a roasted turkey on every table. Yes, being a New Englander, turkey was the spotlight of many of her festival dinners and she often wrote recipes that featured the bird; so it was natural for her to promote the idea that a proper Thanksgiving should always include a turkey as the main protein dish. She also wrote that such a dinner should include mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, among other staples of the holiday today- there’s a reason she’s known as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving”.

Writing about it to her massive audience was one thing- but she wanted the government to make the holiday official.  As such, for two straight decades, Hale annually sent letters pitching the idea of a national day of thanksgiving to every governor in the U.S., as well as to countless congressman and whoever was the President in a given year. On top of that, she wrote annual editorials on the subject, including, as noted, perpetuating many myths about the Pilgrim’s event and telling everyone what should be eaten on that day, with suggested recipes to boot.

She finally got a taker on the idea in Abraham Lincoln, who was looking for any excuse for a peaceful, nationwide celebration. Her final letter to Lincoln on the subject was sent on September 28, 1863. A few days later on October third – taking the Union’s recent military victories as an excuse – Lincoln declared that forever more the last Thursday in November should be a national day of thanks in the United States.

From that point on until the point when congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving into U.S. law in 1941, every U.S. President, with the exception of Roosevelt, would annually declare the last Thursday in November as a national holiday for giving thanks.  Roosevelt, on the other hand, declared the second to last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving in 1939, 1940, and 1941, in order to extend the shopping season.

Unfortunately, only about half of the states went along with him; most of the rest, excepting Texas, stuck with the tradition of the last Thursday in November.  (Proving once again that everything’s bigger in Texas, Texans decided to take both days as a holiday.)  This mess ultimately required congress to step in and officially set the date for Thanksgiving in October of 1941 to go into effect in 1942.  In true congressional form, the date they set was a compromise, being the fourth Thursday, which was sometimes the last and sometimes the second to last.

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Bonus Fact:

  • *Note: The first reference to the group we now call the Pilgrims being referred to as that didn’t occur until William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (written from 1630-1651) where he notes, “So they lefte goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, here 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.” The next two instances of them being called this didn’t occur until 1669 and 1702, both just paraphrasing Bradford’s words.  It wasn’t until the late 18th century when the group would start to be popularly called the “Pilgrims of Leyden” thanks to one Rev. Chandler Robbins reciting Bradford’s words at a Plymouth Forefathers’ Day observance. Even then, it wasn’t until 1820 when Daniel Webster referred to the group as this that the moniker really stuck nation-wide.
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One comment

  • Prior to turkey making its entry into Europe, there was a long tradition of serving whole, large animals at celebratory or ceremonial meals. Peacocks, cranes, storks, swans, and herons were often presented in their glorious, whole, roasted majesty. Turkeys — much easier to domesticate and raise than the other birds — simply replaced them on the celebratory table.