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Why is turkey the main dish on Thanksgiving?

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Have you ever wondered why Thanksgiving is all about turkey and not ham, chicken, venison, beef, or corn?

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans eat turkey during this holiday meal, whether roasted, fried, grilled, or otherwise cooked for the occasion.

You might believe it’s because of what the Pilgrims, a year after they landed in what is now the state of Massachusetts, and their native Wampanoag guests ate at their first thanksgiving feast in 1621. Or maybe it’s because turkey is originally from America.

But it has more to do with how Americans celebrated the holiday in the late 1800s than what poultry the Pilgrims ate while celebrating their bounty in 1621.

The only first-hand account 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 with them and that the meal contained “fowl”, which could be any number of wild birds native to the area, including ducks, geese, and turkeys.

Historians do know that key ingredients of today’s traditional dishes were not available during that first Thanksgiving.

That includes potatoes and green beans. The likely absence of wheat flour and the scarcity of sugar in New England at the time precluded pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. Almost certainly some kind of pumpkin, a staple of the Native American diet, was served along with corn and shellfish.

Historians like me who have studied the history of food have found that most modern Thanksgiving traditions began in the mid-1800s, more than two centuries after the Pilgrims’ first harvest celebration.

The reinvention of the pilgrim festival 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 the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Strongly religious and family-oriented, it campaigned for the establishment of an annual national holiday of “Thanksgiving and Praise”, commemorating the pilgrims’ thanksgiving.

Hale and her colleagues leaned on the 1621 lore for historical justification. Like many of her contemporaries, she assumed that the Pilgrims ate turkey at their first feast because of the abundance of edible wild turkeys in New England.

This campaign lasted for decades, partly due to a lack of enthusiasm among white Southerners. Many of them regarded an earlier celebration among Virginia settlers in honor of supply ships arriving at Jamestown in 1610 as the most 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.

Godey’s, along with other media outlets, embraced the holiday, filling their pages with New England recipes and menus that prominently featured turkey.

“We venture to say that most of Thanksgiving will take the form of gastronomic pleasure,” predicted Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle in 1882. “Anyone who can afford or buy a turkey will sacrifice the noble American fowl today.”

One reason for this: A roasted turkey is a perfect festive centerpiece.

A second is that turkey is also practical for serving to a large crowd. 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 traits led Europeans to include turkeys in their diet after their colonization of the Americas. In England, King Henry VIII regularly enjoyed turkey on Christmas Day, a century before the pilgrimage feast.

In the mid-1800s, the bird cemented its position as England’s favorite Christmas dish.

One reason for this was that in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge sought redemption by replacing the skinny goose of the impoverished Cratchit family with a huge turkey.

Published in 1843, Dickens’ instant best-selling depiction of the prayerful family meal would soon inspire Hale’s idealized Thanksgiving.

While the historical record is hazy, I think it’s possible that the Pilgrims ate turkey in 1621. It was certainly served at New England feasts throughout the colonial period.

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