20 Thanksgiving Facts to Liven Up Your Meal

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If you're one of the 50.9 million people traveling 50 miles or more to spend time with loved ones this Thanksgiving, you may find yourself making small talk with distant family members and in-laws you rarely see. These 20 facts are sure to keep them fascinated until you can escape to the kids' table.

1. THERE'S A CONNECTION BETWEEN THANKSGIVING AND "MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB."

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Writer Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with the 1830 poem "Mary's Lamb," which was eventually turned into the famous children's song. (Whether she was behind the entire poem is still debated.) But although the tune has been a childhood favorite for well over a century, it's arguably not even Hale's most important contribution to the United States. As a native of New Hampshire, Hale had grown up with Thanksgiving festivities and was dismayed that it wasn't federally recognized. When she became editor of Godey's Lady's Book, she used her platform to write editorials and articles about the celebration, and also lobbied the government to declare an official holiday.

Hale used the outbreak of the Civil War to push even harder for a national day of Thanksgiving, thinking that setting aside one day for the entire country “would be of great advantage, socially, nationally, [and] religiously.” Abraham Lincoln agreed, and in 1863 he released an official proclamation that made Thanksgiving the final Thursday in November.

2. NOT EVERYONE THOUGHT THANKSGIVING WAS A GREAT IDEA.

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When Lincoln declared the national holiday again in 1864, a Confederate editorialist from Richmond took the opportunity to insult both the Yankees and the recently re-elected Lincoln, saying: “This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.”

3. AND THEN THERE WAS FRANKSGIVING.

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With only two exceptions, later presidents would follow Lincoln’s tradition of declaring the final Thursday in November Thanksgiving—until 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bumped it up a week in response to pressure from American retailers. You see, many people don't start holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving, so when the final Thursday coincided with the last day of the month, it cut the holiday shopping season—and sales—short. Though the calendar change made retailers happy, it angered FDR's opponents. Conservative states refused to acknowledge the holiday they referred to as "Franksgiving," continuing to give thanks on the last Thursday of the month. The split continued until a compromise was reached, and FDR signed legislation that made the fourth Thursday official.

4. THOMAS JEFFERSON WASN'T A FAN.

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Until Lincoln standardized the date and tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations, presidents were far more haphazard in declaring it. Washington issued Thanksgiving proclamations and Adams issued proclamations for fasting and prayer. But Thomas Jefferson didn’t. At the time, Thanksgiving was very closely tied with religion and prayer, and Jefferson was a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state. In a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller in 1808, Jefferson wrote,

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises...Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. ...But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."

5. THE FIRST THANKSGIVING FEAST LOOKED A LOT DIFFERENT THAN OURS.

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There was no cranberry sauce, no mashed potatoes, no sweet potatoes—and possibly no turkey. Some historical documents that recorded that first Thanksgiving have survived, so we know the Wampanoag brought deer. Wild turkey may have been part of the menu, but certainly not a focus or a centerpiece like it is today. Instead, they likely dined on passenger pigeons, swan, eel, lobster, clams, and mussels. Side dishes may have included corn, beans, and vegetables like turnips and squash.

6. THERE WERE NO BALLOONS AT THE FIRST MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE.

A black and white picture of an early Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, with a marching band in the foreground and an inflatable balloon of Bullwinkle the moose in the background.
Getty / William Lovelace / Stringer

The 40-to-75-foot brightly colored character balloons are a hallmark of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade these days, but when the parade debuted in 1924, there was not a single balloon in sight. Instead, there were nursery rhyme-themed floats, a visit from Santa Claus, and real animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. The first character balloon—Felix the Cat—was introduced in 1927. The next year, newspapers announced that the helium-filled balloons would be released at the end of the parade. They were fitted with a special release valve so that around a week later they would come back to the ground and members of the public could send them to Macy’s for a reward.

7. THE TIME A SENATOR APPEARED ON THE TONIGHT SHOW DRESSED LIKE A PILGRIM.

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Not everyone believes the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth. On December 4, 1619, a ship called the Margaret landed in what is now Virginia. Captain John Woodlief documented the day as one that must be celebrated “yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God"—and the settlers did, until many of them were slaughtered by the Powhatan in 1622. More than 300 years later, Virginia Senator John J. Wicker, Jr. spent much of the 1960s pushing his state as the birthplace of the first Thanksgiving, even appearing on The Tonight Show dressed as a pilgrim.

8. WHO'S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TURDUCKEN?

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John Madden may have popularized the practice of stuffing a chicken into a duck and the duck into a turkey. But he certainly didn't invent the idea of meat nesting dolls. The practice goes all the way back to at least 1774, when an edition of the book The Art of Cookery documented a "Yorkshire Christmas Pie" that involved stuffing pigeon, partridge, fowl, and goose into a turkey. Even more elaborate examples followed, including an 1807 creation called the "roast without equal" by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière; it included up to 17 different birds. The tradition eventually found its way to New Orleans, which is where Madden enjoyed his first turducken experience. "It smelled and looked so good," Madden told The New York Times in 2002. "I didn't have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.'' He began promoting the dish on-air, and the legend was born.

9. YOU'RE NOT AS GOOD AT CARVING TURKEY AS PAUL KELLY.

A paid of hands carving a turkey surrounded by stuffing.
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Kelly, a British turkey producer, is the Guinness World Record holder, with a warp-speed time of 3 minutes and 19.47 seconds. He also holds the turkey plucking record, besting even Gordon Ramsay: Kelly plucked three birds in 11 minutes, 30.16 seconds, while Ramsay came in a close second at 11 minutes, 31.78 seconds.

10. THANKSGIVING EVE IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST DRINKING NIGHTS OF THE YEAR.

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Forget New Year's Eve. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Blackout Wednesday" is the top drunk-driving night in many parts of the United States. The unfortunate phenomenon is likely due to college students (and other people who are home for the holidays) tying one on with old friends the night before the family gathering. In 2012, Mothers Against Drunk Driving reported that there are more drunk driving deaths at Thanksgiving than at Christmas.

11. "JINGLE BELLS" WAS ORIGINALLY A THANKSGIVING SONG.

We may associate the cheerful song with Christmas trees these days, but when James Lord Pierpont wrote it in the mid-19th century, he likely intended it to be sung at Thanksgiving. The tune was originally called "One Horse Open Sleigh." While the transition from one holiday to the other is a little fuzzy, one thing's for sure—"Jingle Bells" was firmly in the Christmas lineup by December 16, 1965, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford played it on a harmonica while in orbit on Gemini 6, making it the first song played in outer space. The pranksters launched into the song after announcing that they had spotted a UFO of some sort.

12. YOUR FAMILY DOESN'T WANT TO TALK POLITICS AT THE DINNER TABLE.

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According to the 2017 Meyocks Thanksgiving Survey, 36 percent of people say politics should be avoided at Thanksgiving. If you have a relative who won't leave the subject alone, Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, advises that it's best to say, "I would really love to get away from politics at the Thanksgiving table this year."

13. HERE'S WHY THE DETROIT LIONS AND THE DALLAS COWBOYS ALWAYS PLAY ON THANKSGIVING.

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Spoiler alert: It was all a marketing scheme. When the Lions franchise moved to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1934, the citizens of Detroit weren't as excited to get a team as you might think—because they already had one, baseball's Detroit Tigers. In an attempt to get the city excited about its second team, owner George Richards came up with the idea of having a game on Thanksgiving. Because he was well connected, Richards managed to convince NBC to broadcast the game on 94 stations across the U.S. It worked: The Lions filled the stadium to capacity and had to turn fans away at the gate. When the Dallas Cowboys picked up on the marketing scheme in 1966, fans broke the attendance record, and both teams have upheld the Turkey Day tradition nearly every year since.

14. THE WAY WE DEPICT PILGRIMS IS ALL WRONG

A man dressed as a stereotypical pilgrim in black clothing with a buckled hat, carrying a musket.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

The black outfits, white collars, and buckled hats are all wrong. They dressed in trousers, shirts, and dresses of various colors. Women wore colors like red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and grey. Men preferred white, beige, earthy green, brown, and black, but we also have evidence that one of the Elders, William Brewster, wore a red vest and a purple vest. The way the Native Americans are depicted is also misleading: "[They] certainly didn't go around in the chilly New England autumn half-naked," said Laurence Pizer, the former director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

15. "UNTHANKSGIVING" IS CELEBRATED EVERY YEAR ON ALCATRAZ ISLAND.

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Every year, indigenous people and their supporters gather at Alcatraz for a sunrise service where they give thanks for the survival of their people. The event was originally founded in 1975, partially in response to the story we're told about Pilgrims and indigenous people living in harmony. "That's not what happened and we know it," says Andrea Carmen, the executive director of the International Indian Council. But over time, the group has adopted a different outlook. "The message of Unthanksgiving doesn't convey the true feeling of indigenous people," Carmen told the East Bay Express, "which is to give thanks every day for our survival, and the survival of the natural world, and the courage of our ancestors who fought and struggled and resisted to keep our culture alive for us." Now more properly called the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, events include traditional dances and a prayer to the rising sun.

16. THERE'S A THANKSGIVING WINE.

A bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau next to a glass that is one-third filled with wine. A man in a suit and tie stands in the background.
Getty / Mario Tama / Staff

Beaujolais Nouveau, a fruity red wine from the Beaujolais region of France, is annually released on the third Thursday of November, also known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day. The release date has become quite the event in Paris, where people have competed since the 1950s to see who can get the first bottles from Beaujolais to Paris. Marketers in the U.S. have used the November release date to pair the wine with the holiday, recommending Beaujolais as a terrific match for turkey.

17. BUTTERBALL ISN'T THE ONLY TURKEY HOTLINE YOU CAN CALL.

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The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is famous for the calls it gets from uncertain cooks on Thanksgiving. But 1-800-BUTTERBALL isn't the only game in town. If you can't reach any of the 50+ Butterball experts, you can also call the following numbers:

  • The U.S. Department of Meat and Poultry Hotline: (888) 674-6854, open until 2 on Thanksgiving
  • Honeysuckle White Turkey Line: (800) 810-6325
  • Perdue Chicken Customer Service Hotline: (800) 473-7383, open until 3 on Thanksgiving

18. BACK IN THE DAY, YOU COULD HAVE JUST CALLED JULIA CHILD.

Julia Child, wearing a flowered blouse, sits in her kitchen, which has been reassembled at the Smithsonian Museum.
Getty / Tim Sloan / Staff

Who needs a turkey hot line when you have Julia Child herself as a resource? During the 1970s and '80s, Child's number was publicly listed in the phone book, so enterprising home chefs took it upon themselves to dial her digits when they were having cooking troubles on Thanksgiving. Though she could have left her number unlisted or simply unplugged her phone on high-traffic days, Child refused. She always answered the phone, and, most of the time, she just told them whatever they needed to hear so they could chill out and enjoy their holidays, including to simply serve the turkey cold.

19. THE MOST POPULAR SIDE DISHES MAY SURPRISE YOU.

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Google recently released the 2017 list of the most popular Thanksgiving side dishes in every state, and while favorites like stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie make many lists, there are also a few surprises. If you live in South Dakota or Oregon, don't be surprised to find Ambrosia salad on the table. Ohio is particularly fond of seven-layer salad, while sausage stuffing is on the menu in Connecticut. Arizona prefers pumpkin roll, while New York can't do without acorn squash.

20. BLACK FRIDAY ISN'T NAMED FOR THE DAY BUSINESSES GOT BACK INTO THE BLACK.

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You've probably heard the tale that the massive amounts of shopping that take place on Black Friday is the day that many businesses finally make the financial flip from being in the red to being in the black. In reality, the term dates back to the 1950s, when the Philadelphia police used it to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, which was also the day before the annual Army-Navy football game. Local retailers tried to take advantage of the crowds by having sales and calling it “Big Friday,” which resulted in utter madness in the stores. People took advantage of the craziness to shoplift, so between the extra traffic, crowd control, and arrests, the police were not too happy about having to work some pretty serious overtime—hence the name. By the 1980s, the discounts and super sales started creeping across the nation.

Massive Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Raw Turkey Just Days Before Thanksgiving

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The U.S. has been in the midst of a salmonella outbreak for more than a year, with the bacteria contaminating everything from cereal to snack foods as well as raw poultry. Now health experts warn that your Thanksgiving dinner may put you at risk for infection. As ABC reports, salmonella has been traced back to a number of turkey products, and Consumer Reports is urging the USDA to name the compromised brands ahead of the holiday.

The drug-resistant strain of salmonella linked to the recent outbreak has been detected in samples taken from live turkeys, raw turkey products, and turkey pet food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since November 5, 2017, 164 people in 35 states have contracted the infection from a variety of products.

While many of the items linked to the salmonella outbreak have been pulled from shelves, the potentially contaminated turkey brands have yet to be identified. In a news release, Consumer Reports urged the USDA to release this information in time for consumers to do their Thanksgiving shopping.

"The USDA should immediately make public which turkey producers, suppliers, and brands are involved in this outbreak—especially with Thanksgiving right around the corner," Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union (the policy department of Consumer Reports), said in a statement. "This information could save lives and help ensure consumers take the precautions needed to prevent anyone in their home from getting sick."

Even if specific brands aren't flagged before November 22, the CDC isn't telling consumers to skip the turkey altogether. Instead, home cooks are encouraged to practice the same safety precautions they normally would when preparing poultry. To avoid salmonella poisoning, start with a clean work area and utensils and wash your hands and counter thoroughly before and after preparing the bird. But skip washing the bird itself, as this can actually do more to spread around harmful pathogens.

Cook your turkey until the meatiest part reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. And if you're looking for a way to make sure the juiciest parts of the turkey cook through without drying out your white meat, consider cooking the parts separately.

[h/t ABC]

How to Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving, According to the Experts

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In a letter written to his daughter Sally in 1784, two years after the bald eagle was chosen as the country’s national emblem, Ben Franklin referred to the species as a “bird of bad moral character” that steals fish from weaker birds. A turkey, he argued, was a “much more respectable bird.”

But many Americans have a difficult time cooking turkey. Despite their fine moral fiber, turkeys have a reputation for being among the trickiest of birds to prepare. They're big and bulky, and cooking turkey to a safe temperature can easily dry out the meat. Techniques like brining and spatchcocking—essentially snapping the turkey’s spine in order to lay it flat—are best left to advanced chefs. So how can holiday hosts cook turkey to everyone’s satisfaction?

GET TO KNOW YOUR THANKSGIVING TURKEY

A turkey is placed into an oven
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It helps to understand what kind of fowl you’re dealing with. “The average Thanksgiving turkey is 12 or 14 pounds,” says Guy Crosby, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “That’s opposed to a 3- or 4-pound chicken. And dark meat tends to need a higher temperature to cook than white meat, which runs the risk of drying out the breast when you’re trying to get the rest of it cooked. People also want a nice, crisp brown skin. Balancing all of that with safety is a big challenge.”

Undercooking a turkey can be problematic, particularly if you’d prefer not to serve up a Petri dish of Salmonella to guests. The bacteria that causes food poisoning and all its unpleasant symptoms is commonly found in poultry and has even led to a recent 35-state outbreak of illness due to contaminated raw turkey products that were apparently mishandled by consumers. The good news? Cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F will kill any germs lurking inside.

Still, you want to be careful in how you handle your raw materials. According to Sue Smith, co-director of the Butterball Turkey-Talk Line, you should avoid washing the turkey. “We don’t recommend it because there’s no reason,” Smith tells Mental Floss. “You don’t want [contaminated] water to splatter around the countertops.”

BRINE A TURKEY UNDER ITS SKIN

If you bought your turkey frozen, let it thaw breast-side up for four days in your refrigerator. (A good rule of thumb is one day for every four pounds of weight.) Place the bird in a pan and put it on the bottom shelf so no juices leak on to other shelves or into food.

Once it’s thawed, you can consider an additional step, and one that might make for a juicier bird. Rather than brine the entire turkey—which allows it to soak up saltwater to retain more moisture during cooking—you can opt to moisten the meat with a 1:1 salt and sugar mixture under the skin.

“Turkeys are so darn big that brining it is not something you can do conveniently in a fridge,” Crosby tells Mental Floss. “If you want to add salt to a turkey, the general recommendation is to salt it under the skin.” Crosby advises to use the salt and sugar blend anywhere meat is prone to drying out, like the breast. Let it rest in the fridge for 24 hours, uncovered. (That’s one day in addition to thawing. But check to make sure your turkey didn’t already come pre-brined.)

This accomplishes a few things. By adding salt to the meat, you’re going to let the meat retain more moisture than it would normally. (Cooking effectively squeezes water from muscle tissue, wringing the bird of its natural moisture.) By leaving it uncovered in the fridge, you’re letting the skin get a little dry. That, Crosby says, can encourage the Maillard reaction, a chemical response to heat in excess of 300 degrees that transforms amino acids and sugar, resulting in a tasty brown skin.

Once your bird is ready for roasting, Smith advises you to place the bird on a flat, shallow pan with a rack that raises it 2 or 3 inches. “The rack lets airflow get around the bottom,” she says. If you don’t have a flat rack, you can use carrots, celery, or even rolled tin foil to give the turkey a little boost off the pan.

COOK TURKEY TO A SAFE TEMPERATURE

Sliced turkey is served on a plate
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A 12- to 14-pound turkey will need to roast for roughly 3 hours at 350°F in order to cook thoroughly. But you’ll want to be sure by using a food thermometer. Both Smith and Crosby caution against trusting the disposable pop-up thermometers that come pre-inserted in some turkeys. Invest in a good oven-safe meat thermometer and plunge it right into the deepest space between the drumstick and thigh and get it to a safe 175 to 180 degrees. (The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends heating it to no less than 165 degrees.) “By that point, the breast will be over 180 degrees,” Crosby says. If you’ve stuffed the turkey—and roughly half of people do, according to Butterball research—make sure it’s cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Once your bird is done, let it sit out for 35 to 45 minutes. The turkey will retain enough heat that it won’t get cold (don't cover it with tin foil, because the crispy skin will get soggy). Instead, a cooling-off period allows the muscle fibers to reabsorb juices and the salt and sugar to bring out more of the flavor.

REHEAT LEFTOVER TURKEY SLOWLY

When it’s time to put the leftovers away, be sure to keep slicing. Individual portions will cool down more quickly than if you shoved the entire bird into the fridge. Eat them within two or three days. If you want to keep it from drying out during reheating, Crosby suggests putting the meat into a covered baking dish with some vegetables, potatoes, or gravy and using the oven on low heat or a saucepan on the stovetop. “You’ll retain more moisture the slower you reheat it,” he says.

Roasting isn’t the only approach, as some of your friends or family members may attest. In addition to the brutal triumph of spatchcocking, some people opt to deep-fry turkeys, grill them, or slice them up into pieces prior to cooking. There’s no wrong way, but roasting will give you the most predictable results.

“Roasting is Butterball’s preferred method,” Smith says. “It consistently turns out a tender, juicy turkey.” Or, as Ben Franklin would say, a much more respectable bird.

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