Why do Americans gobble up turkey on Thanksgiving?
At the time of this writing, Thanksgiving arrives in less than three weeks (!), and we were curious about the origins of our nation’s choice to eat turkey. For most of the year, we choose chicken as our preferred poultry. Yet, many of us serve this large, native bird as we give thanks in late November.
Most people assume that current Thanksgiving menus originated from the “first Thanksgiving” – the meal shared between Pilgrim settlers in the Plymouth colony (now Massachusetts) and Wampanoag people in late 1621. But, there’s no written evidence that turkey was served. The Wampanoag brought deer, and the Pilgrims provided wild “fowl.” The fowl could have been native turkeys, but historians believe it was likely ducks or geese.
A side note: The Pilgrims did not mark this meal as a milestone. No 17th-century reference exists beyond a letter written by Plymouth colonist, Edward Winslow. The tradition of showing gratitude for autumn harvests had roots in European festivals and Christian religious observances, and “days of thanksgiving” were fairly common in the colonies. In fact, many held unofficial thanksgiving celebrations, and few people associated them with the Plymouth settlers.
Yet, by the turn of the 19th century, serving turkey during these festivals became popular for reasons including:
- Plentifulness: The birds were plentiful. One expert estimates there were at least 10 million turkeys in America during early colonial times.
- Availability: Turkeys were almost always available for slaughter on a family farm. While live cows and hens were useful as long as they produced milk and eggs, respectively, turkeys were generally raised only for their meat and could be readily processed.
- Size: A single turkey was usually big enough to feed a family.
Still, Thanksgiving didn’t become an official turkey-eating celebration until approximately 36 years after Sarah Josepha Hale began her efforts to establish the holiday in the late 1820s.
In her 1827 novel Northwood, she penned an entire chapter describing a New England Thanksgiving, with a roasted turkey “placed at the head of the table.” At the same time, she began campaigning to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States,
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, as the civil war approached, she believed the holiday would help unify a nation on the brink of division. Her efforts to solidify the national day of thanks finally paid off in 1863 with a presidential proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.
We sincerely thank Ms. Hale and Mr. Lincoln for their efforts and wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings in 2021!
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