Every fourth Thursday of November, almost 90 percent of Americans sit down at the table and feast on turkey. For all our fowl friends out there wondering what gives, here’s a brief history of one of America’s favorite traditions: the Thanksgiving turkey.
The year was 1621 and the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts had barely survived a harsh winter. The nearby Wampanoag tribe saw the colonists’ dwindling numbers and unsuccessful attempts at harvesting crops, and stepped in to help. The Wampanoag introduced them to local crops and showed them how to hunt North American game, and Governor William Bradford hosted a feast in gratitude.
Surprisingly, the existence of turkey at the first Thanksgiving is debatable. An account of the meal by colonist Edward Winslow mentions fowl in general as well as venison, but not specifically turkey. Bradford’s own account does mention turkey, but was written twenty years after the fact and wasn’t discovered until 1854.
Regardless, a precedent was set and a pastime was born. Settlers throughout the country continued hosting their own Thanksgiving feasts, with turkey when they had it, for years. Two centuries later, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the day a national holiday to give thanks for “general blessings.” It’s even said that Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey would make a better national bird than the bald eagle.
Other favorites like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie—all unavailable in the pilgrims’ time—were introduced over the years.
Check out some of our favorite Gourmet turkey recipes.