The Surprising Reason We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving

Here's why the bird is synonymous with the holiday.

The Surprising Reason We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving
Cooked turkey sits on a platter surrounded by pie, sunflowers, and a candle

When it comes to Thanksgiving, people all across America have one food item on their minds: turkey. It’s the main dish of almost everyone’s Thanksgiving meal, but the reason that’s the case isn’t exactly common knowledge.

What Did The Pilgrims Eat At The First Thanksgiving?

Many assume that the pilgrims ate turkey at the famous first feast that took place in 1621. According to The Smithsonian, however, it’s more likely the group dined on venison, provided by hunters from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. 

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So, if turkey wasn’t served on the first Thanksgiving, then why do we eat it every year?

Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, said, “There was a tradition of serving large wildfowl in medieval Europe, especially peacock, which was skinned, cooked, and resewn into its feathers for presentation.”

He continued, “When turkeys from America and Guinea Fowl from Africa were introduced [to America] in the 17th century, they were served the same way.”

Turkeys weren’t indigenous to North America at the time of the first Thanksgiving, but once they were introduced to the environment, they became a great source of protein.

Why We Eat Turkey On The Holiday

Turkeys are larger than chickens, ducks, or geese, making them a better option when it comes to serving a large group. Additionally, killing turkeys for such a widely celebrated feast makes more sense than using another animal; cattle provide milk and other fowl provide eggs. Turkeys only provide meat. 

In 1870, Thanksgiving was made into an official national holiday, and roast turkey was widely considered the official dish of the occasion. This was mostly because of the use of images and descriptions of turkey in popular culture. 

For example, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the characters dine on a turkey instead of the traditional goose. Another popular book, Northwood: A Tale of New England, also described a Thanksgiving meal that included turkey. 

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Today, turkey is a part of almost everyone’s Thanksgiving celebrations, but many put their own spin on the dish. From cooking methods to seasoning to side dishes, each family’s take on turkey is a little different.

The first pilgrims might not have dined on turkey, but the food item is now forever linked with our Thanksgiving meals.  

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