Thanksgiving Day Special: Story Behind the Turkey

Thanksgiving usually means gathering with family and friends, and sharing a bountiful meal. Some of the dishes typically found in a Thanksgiving meal include, bread stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and, above all, turkey. A Thanksgiving meal without a turkey is like a biryani without the rice – quite impossible. But did you know the ‘first Thanksgiving meal’ most probably did not have that tasty, sumptuous turkey. So, how did turkey become the centrepiece of this feast?

Yes, the year 1621 saw the Pilgrim settlers have a bountiful harvest and they celebrated the occasion with the local Wampanoag people. But there is no indication that turkey was served. According to historians, the Wampanoag brought five deers, while the Pilgrims provided wild ‘fowl’. Strictly speaking, the ‘fowl’ could have very well been turkey, which were in abundance in the area, but historians believe it was probably duck or geese.

It is only by the turn of the 19 th century that turkey became a popular dish to serve on Thanksgiving. Now, there were a few reasons for this –

  • The bird was rather plentiful. Experts claim that there were an estimated 10 million turkeys in America at the time of the European contact
  • Turkeys on family farm were always available for slaughter. The birds were generally raised only for their meat.
  • A single turkey was big enough to feed an entire family

Besides, these facts, writer Sarah Joseph Hale is said to have played important role in bringing turkey to the Thanksgiving table. In her 1827 novel – Northwood, she devoted an entire chapter to a description of a New England Thanksgiving, with a roasted turkey “placed at the head of the table.” At the same time, she was also campaigning to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States, which she believed would help unify the country as it teetered toward civil war. Her efforts finally paid off in 1863 when a presidential proclamation by Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.

Now, as Thanksgiving became an official American holiday, a national mythology formed around it. In 1841, a collection of Pilgrim writing had referred to the meal described by Winslow as “the first Thanksgiving.” Although Winslow didn’t specifically mention turkey, his fellow colonist William Bradford did refer to a “great store of wild Turkies” at Plymouth that fall, in a journal that was reprinted in 1856.

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