If the early settlers didn't even have turkey at the very first Thanksgiving celebration, then how the heck did it become such a popular adornment for every holiday table? Even more so, not only is turkey seen once at Thanksgiving but it's often also seen again at Christmas... So, how did this happen with no definitive proof of actually having eaten the giant bird from the get-go? That's one of life's biggest questions.
While there's no denying that turkey is delicious and a great alternative to chicken for some people, the tradition has some unlikely roots in terms of what was truly authentic to a traditional Thanksgiving meal. For starters, the very first Thanksgiving wasn't even celebrated on the day that we celebrate it today (but we blew your mind with that in another article), and the dinner prepared was, actually more pescatarian than anything else. Considering New England's coastal bounty in terms of what seafood and shellfish would have looked like during 1621, this comes as no surprise. However, that still doesn't solve the mystery of why turkey is so abundantly popular or why we eat so much of today.
The Origins Of The Turkey Debacle
There's a scene in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (if you haven't seen it, watch it!) where the crowning achievement for dinner is the turkey that the entire family is so proud of - and looking forward to - before it's pulled from the oven and nearly disintegrates in a puff of smoke from being so dried out. This is a common turkey blunder - the drying out, not the puff of gross smoke. And it also goes on to prove that turkey is so ubiquitous and ingrained in American culture that even popular film culture made it the centerpiece of a hilarious movie scene. So, how did it all get that way?
There is little to no supporting evidence of a turkey, specific, being present at the dinner table during those days in 1621. There is evidence, however, of a grand seafood feast along with certain types of 'wild fowl' according to the reports by Edward Winslow, who thankfully kept journals of all the goings-on during that time. Wild fowl would have included peasants such as duck or geese and while wild turkeys were running around back then, it's not likely they would have started a hunt just to catch one to have at the table.
The difference between the first Thanksgiving back then and Thanksgiving now is that back then, it was a means to give thanks for a successful harvest. Today, we celebrate the joy in simply being thankful what whatever we have. Shortly after the first harvest celebration, it was decided that it would continue to be a national celebration, slowly growing in intensity and significance as time went on. That's why it wasn't until much later that turkey became part of the celebration, joining the party late but joining it nonetheless.
The Official Start Of Open Turkey Season
By 1856, journal accounts supported the widely-received support in making Thanksgiving a national holiday for America. Wild turkey hunts started in 1621 and continued to be tradition, and it was the combination of these hunts, along with the fact that turkey was uniquely 'American' that caused it to gain so much attention. It was also delicious and the perfect addition to any dinner table, especially during the holiday season when settlers were acting on their thanks and abundantly happy to have protein, along with harvest vegetables, at their table. However, it wasn't just because of these reasons that turkey continued to be a regular Thanksgiving guest.
With the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it became a national, American tradition to cook a bunch of foods that would definitely not be eaten in one day in order to celebrate the things they were giving thanks for. However, turkey could be stretched in a myriad of ways - while vegetables and casseroles could stretch for days on their own, the turkey was a large enough bird to serve a grand amount of people and could be easily thrown into recipes for days after it was cooked. Therefore, it was the obvious choice for large families over something like a chicken, one of which would not be nearly enough when the entire extended family was over for dinner. Turkeys also didn't serve multiple purposes on a farm as other animals did, which made them the obvious choice for prepping and cooking up.