Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

iStock/bhofack2
iStock/bhofack2

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

THE PILGRIMS MAY NOT HAVE HAD TURKEY.

Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, as colonist William Bradford noted in his journal. However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering "wild fowl" for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

SO WHY DO WE CHOW DOWN ON TURKEY, THEN?

It helps to know a bit about the history of Thanksgiving. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked that, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they didn't serve much utilitarian purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either. An interesting 2007 piece in Slate discussed these reasons for turkey's prominence, but also made another intriguing point. The publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843 may have helped force along the turkey's cause as a holiday delicacy when Scrooge magnanimously sends the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey.

THERE WAS NO CRANBERRY SAUCE, EITHER.

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat. There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

THEY DID HAVE PLENTY OF VENISON.

Winslow mentions in his writings that the governor sent out a party of four men to do some fowling for the feast, but the Pilgrims and Wampanoag also enjoyed five deer as part of their feasting. The meat supposedly arrived at the celebration as a gift from the Wampanoag king Massasoit. On top of the venison, other meats probably included lots of fish and shellfish, which were staples of the Pilgrims' diets. So if you want to wolf down a lobster or some oysters in lieu of turkey on Thursday, nobody can fault you for being historically inaccurate.

PUMPKIN PIE DIDN'T CAP OFF DINNER.

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

30 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in May

iStock.com/Wildroze
iStock.com/Wildroze

From May Day to Memorial Day and everything in between, the month of May is full of delightful, offbeat holidays.

  1. May 1: Lei Day

You've heard of May Day, but this is the Hawaiian equivalent. Celebrate the islands' culture with lei-making contests, Hawaiian food and music, and even the crowning of the Lei Queen.

  1. May 1: Mother Goose Day

Founded in 1987 by Gloria T. Delamar in conjunction with the publication of her book, Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, this is a day to "re-appreciate" the old nursery rhymes.

  1. May 1: New Homeowners Day

One could argue that getting out of the rental game is a celebration in itself, but here's a holiday for brand new homeowners anyway. (A Risky Business-style dance party would be one good way to party with all that room.)

  1. May 3: National Two Different Colored Shoes Day

For people who want to practice a safe level of nonconformity.

  1. May 4: Star Wars Day

     Darth Vader and two stormtroopers from the film 'Star Wars' stand menacingly over some road works in London's Oxford Street in 1980.
    Central Press/Getty Images

May the fourth be with you!

  1. May 4: Free Comic Book Day

Ever since 2002, the first Saturday of May has seen participating independent comic book stores across the country hand out their wares for free. Over 3 million comic books are given away each year.

  1. May 4: International Respect For Chickens Day

You might appreciate them for the sustenance they provide, or you might appreciate them so much that you don’t use them for sustenance. Either way, celebrate the chicken today.

  1. May 6: No Homework Day

We assume this applies to kids and adults alike.

  1. May 7: National Cosmopolitan Day

We love a holiday with a built-in way to celebrate: in this case, with Carrie Bradshaw's favorite cocktail.

  1. May 8: No Socks Day

    Baby taking first steps
    iStock.com/simonkr

The pitch for this holiday cites the lighter load of laundry foregoing socks will create. This seems specious at best—how big are your socks?— but let's all hope it will be sandal weather by this point, in which case you can and should definitely go without socks.

  1. May 10: Stay Up All Night Night

Staying up all night pretty much always leads to some great stories.

  1. May 11: Eat What You Want Day

The best holidays encourage you to break some dietary rules and this one might be the best of all because it encourages you to break all of them.

  1. May 11: National Babysitter’s Day

Because, let's be real: their job isn't always easy.

  1. May 11: National Train Day

National Train Day celebrates when the "golden spike" was driven into the final tie in Promontory Summit, Utah, to connect the Central Pacific and Union Continental railroads, creating a country unified by 1776 miles of train track.

  1. May 12: National Limerick Day

Observed annually on the birthday of English author Edward Lear, whose 1846 A Book of Nonsense helped bring the lyrical form to popularity.

  1. May 13: National Hummus Day

    A fresh bowl of hummus with cucumbers
    iStock.com/TheCrimsonMonkey

Give us all the food holidays.

  1. May 14: Underground America Day

Underground America Day honors those who make their homes not just on Earth, but in it. It was invented by architect Malcolm Wells in 1974 and those who wish to celebrate can do so by doing things like riding the subway, burying treasure, eating root vegetables, or thinking about moles.

  1. May 16: Biographers Day

This is celebrated annually on the anniversary of the 1763 meeting in London between James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, which launched one of the most famous author-subject relationships and produced the biographies Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Life of Samuel Johnson.

  1. May 16: Mimosa Day

What would brunch be without them?

  1. May 17: National Bike To Work Day

We can't promise you won't arrive to the office slightly sweaty, but we can give you permission to skip the gym after completing your cycling commute.

  1. May 17: National Pizza Party Day

    A table full of freshly made pizzas
    iStock.com/AlexeyBorodin

Party is a relative term, by the way. You and a pizza is definitely a party.

  1. May 18: International Museum Day

On this day, the entire planet celebrates museums and all the amazing things they have to offer. We recommend checking for events and activities in your area: Hundreds of thousands of museums join the party every year.

  1. May 20: Eliza Doolittle Day

Today is a good day to channel your inner Eliza (either before or after the etiquette lessons).

  1. May 22: National Maritime Day

A Presidential Proclamation issued in 1933 made this day an official holiday dedicated to recognizing the maritime industry. It is set to coincide with the date in 1819 that the American steamship Savannah set sail on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam power.

  1. May 22: World Goth Day

They'll act like they don't want/need/care about having a day in the calendar, but come on, everyone wants to be celebrated.

  1. May 23: World Turtle Day

    A green turtle approaching the surface of the water
    iStock.com/Searsie

Celebrate by reading 20 things you didn't know about sea turtles right here.

  1. May 24: International Tiara Day

Who's a pretty princess? Anyone who wants to celebrate Tiara Day.

  1. May 25: National Tap Dance Day

The perfect day to put on your dancing shoes.

  1. May 25: Towel Day

To honor author Douglas Adams, fans carry around a towel all day. The tradition is a nod to a passage in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the importance of towels: "A towel, [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." Good enough for us.

  1. May 30: Loomis Day

This is a day to honor Mahlon Loomis, a oft-forgotten Washington D.C.-based dentist who received the first U.S. patent on a wireless telegraphy system in 1872—before Guglimo Marconi, who is credited with inventing the first radio, was even born.

Vermont and Maine Are Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images

The narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus has shifted in recent years, leading some U.S. states and cities to reconsider glorifying the figure with his own holiday. If the governors of Vermont and Maine sign their new bills into law, the two states will become the latest places to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, CNN reports.

In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Bill went into effect, officially designating Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October. The holiday was originally meant to recognize the "discovery" of America—a version of history that erases the people already living on the continent when Columbus arrived and ignores the harm he inflicted.

As Columbus's popularity decreases in the U.S., some places have embraced Indigenous Peoples' Day: A day dedicated to Native American culture in history. The holiday is already observed in Seattle, Washington; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Alaska. Earlier this year, Sandusky, Ohio announced they would swap Columbus Day for Voting Day and give municipal workers the election Tuesday of November off instead.

Indigenous Peoples' Day has been celebrated in place of Columbus Day in Vermont for the past few years, but a new bill would make the change permanent. The Vermont state legislature has voted yes on the bill, and now it just needs approval from Governor Phil Scott, which he says he plans to give. If he passes the law, it will go into effect on October 14, 2019 (the date Columbus Day falls on this year).

Maine voted on a similar bill in March, and it gained approval from both the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Like Governor Scott, Maine governor Janet Mills plans on signing her state's bill and making the holiday official.

Regardless of the legal status of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations take place across the country every October. South Dakota hosts Native American Day festivities at the Crazy Horse Memorial each year, and in Seattle, Indigenous Peoples celebrations last a whole week.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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