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.

8 Adorable Products You Can Buy for International Sloth Day

Good Luck Socks/Intelex via Amazon
Good Luck Socks/Intelex via Amazon

It’s that time of the year again, folks—the time when we all collectively lose our chill over a slow-moving, two- or three-toed mammal with an adorable squeak and poop that defies physics. That’s right: International Sloth Day is coming on October 20. Here’s a list of must-have coloring books, onesies, and Christmas sweaters that you can pick up to showcase your love of one of the internet's favorite animals.

1. Cuddly Microwaveable Sloth; $23

Microwavable sloth for International Sloth Day.
Intelex/Amazon

Warm your heart and your body with a plush sloth that doubles as a soothing heating pad. The toy is filled with millet grains and dried French lavender, a combination intended to help you get to sleep easier.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Hanging Ceramic Sloth Planter; $19

FattyBee Ceramic Sloth Planter.
FattyBee/Amazon

This flower planter pulls double duty, communicating both your love of sloths and your appreciation for plants. And it makes a tasteful piece of hanging home decor, too.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Sloth Coloring Book; $7

Sloth Coloring Book on Amazon.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform/Amazon

Sloths themselves are already works of art, but you’d be forgiven for wanting a few more sloth-related crafts in your life. Now you can make your own masterpiece with this detailed coloring book. All you'll need are some colored pencils and you'll be ready to go.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Farting Sloth Coloring Book; $7

Sloth Farts Coloring Book on Amazon.
M & L Coloring Books/Amazon

But maybe traditional coloring books aren’t your thing. You’re in luck: Amazon sells a coloring book for the crowd that both loves sloths and laughs a little too much at farts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Sloth Socks; $14

Sloth Socks on Amazon.
Good Luck Socks/Amazon

These socks are ideal for people who might not want to wear their love of sloths out in the open but are very comfortable showing it off on their ankles.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Sloth Onesie; $60

Tipsy Elves Sloth Onesie on Amazon.
Tipsy Elves/Amazon

No list of sloth-related products would be complete without a cozy onesie, and this one from Tipsy Elves is perfect for either pajamas or a last-minute Halloween costume. This onesie even comes with zippered pockets and cuddly sloth claws!

Buy it: Amazon

7. Sloth-Themed Ugly Christmas Sweater; $45


Tipsy Elves/Amazon

Why not celebrate the upcoming holiday season with this sloth-themed ugly Christmas sweater? You’re sure to be the hit of any holiday pub crawl or office Christmas party.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Sloth Mug; $13


Mika Mugs/Amazon

Really, what says it better than this mug? You just really freaking love sloths, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so be sure to declare your feelings along with your morning cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

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