When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with our family, it is likely we will see Turkey on the menu. We will also see plenty of other dishes, such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Regardless of how many different dishes are on the table, however, it is always the turkey that steals the show. Why is it that people eat turkey for Thanksgiving? You might be surprised by the answer.
First of all, it’s important to get one of the common misunderstandings out of the way. When the pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving in 1621 at Plymouth, they more than likely did not have access to plenty of turkeys. That isn’t to say there weren’t wild turkeys in the area. Even colonist William Bradford talked about them in his book ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’.
One of the most authentic pieces of information we have about the pilgrim’s harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow. He was the primary author of Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth and he gave a firsthand account of the Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention turkey but he does mention wildfowl gathered for the meal. More than likely, it was duck or geese.
That may leave you wondering why we have turkey on the menu so frequently today. People have been celebrating the harvest time for thousands of years but Thanksgiving wasn’t made a national holiday until the 19th century. At times, presidents may make a Thanksgiving day celebration part of the season but the holiday wasn’t something that caught on quickly. Many of the early celebrations did include turkey. Even Alexander Hamilton said, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
By the time Bradford’s journals were reprinted in 1856, they had basically been missing for at least five decades. A receptive audience welcomed the reprinting and decided to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Bradford did write about how colonists were hunting wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621. In addition, turkey is a North American bird so it started to be a popular choice for Thanksgiving meals in America. When Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, turkey was an obvious choice for the menu.
Aside from everything else, there were other reasons why turkey would be considered for the Thanksgiving meal. As a large bird, it could feed many family members and they don’t serve another purpose, as did cows or chickens. It also made Thanksgiving a more notable day, because turkey wasn’t as common as pork.