The Real Reason Why We Eat Turkey and the Rest on Thanksgiving

What was once a harvest celebration has morphed into holiday celebrating the diversity of American food and culture.
(Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images)
Nov 23, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and you have everything under control. Unless you’re having a turkey-free meal, your bird is holding pride of place in the refrigerator; odds are, you’ve put your money where your mouth is and have splurged on a heritage breed (I’ve been converted to those from Bill Niman’s BN Ranch) or a turkey from a local farmer who believes birds raised with care will be flavorful and tender.

If you aren’t doing all the cooking yourself (and really, why should you?), you know who is bringing what sides and desserts. (Hoping for something beyond pumpkin? No worries—we have a few ideas.) Part of the fun of this sort of potluck Thanksgiving is that the table reflects the traditions of families other than yours, and the beauty of the usual turkey, stuffing, and other trimmings is that they welcome a wide array of global flavors.

I know people who forgo a relish tray filled with celery sticks and pimento-stuffed green olives for pickled napa cabbage with umeboshi plums, or start off the meal with a silky-smooth Caribbean calabaza soup sparked with Scotch bonnet chile. A few years ago, one friend started pan-roasting her sweet potatoes in coconut oil instead of olive oil and has never looked back. Another daringly updated his mom’s green bean casserole with Thai red curry paste and peanuts, and now, he says, “she thinks it was her idea.”

In many households, stuffing has moved way out of the Pepperidge Farm realm. It can be rich and rustic with Italian sausage, Parmesan, and crusty bread, for example, or loaded with sticky rice, Chinese black mushrooms, and smoked oysters. Cranberry sauce easily morphs into a cranberry chutney given complexity by shallots, ginger, and a splash of red-wine vinegar.

Family heritage has always played a part in this most American of feast days. “The classic Thanksgiving menu of turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and root vegetables is based on New England fall harvests. In the 19th century, as the holiday spread across the country, local cooks modified the menu both by choice (‘this is what we like to eat’) and by necessity (‘this is what we have to eat’),” explains Plimoth Plantation on its Thanksgiving History page. In addition to presenting an in-depth look at life for the colonists and Wampanoag Indians in the 1600s (and freshly milled organic cornmeal from its gristmill), the living museum also includes a Heritage Breeds Program.

“Today, many Americans delight in giving regional produce, recipes and seasonings a place on the Thanksgiving table. In New Mexico, chiles and other southwestern flavors are used in stuffing, while on the Chesapeake Bay, the local favorite, crab, often shows up as a holiday appetizer or as an ingredient in dressing,” Plimoth continues. “In Minnesota, the turkey might be stuffed with wild rice, and in Washington State, locally grown hazelnuts are featured in stuffing and desserts. In Indiana, persimmon puddings are a favorite Thanksgiving dessert, and in Key West, key lime pie joins pumpkin pie on the holiday table. Some specialties have even become ubiquitous regional additions to local Thanksgiving menus; in Baltimore, for instance, it is common to find sauerkraut alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.”

When it comes to what most of us tend to think of the first Thanksgiving, in Plimoth (also spelled “Plymouth”) Colony in 1621, not much is known for certain. The only record (reprinted in the above “Thanksgiving History” link) of this harvest celebration after a year of sickness and scarcity shows that the Wampanoag added five deer to the colonists’ haul of wild fowl, which may have been migratory geese, ducks, and/or turkeys, an abundant bird that ranged from Central America to New England. (Turkey was already a familiar food in the Old World, as the Spanish returned in the early 16th century with domesticated birds from Central America.) There was also Indian (flint) corn in some form, and other seasonal foods such as fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and pumpkins and other squashes.

They even may have brewed their own beer. “Due to the notoriously bad quality of the drinking water in seventeenth-century England, beer was considered essential to a healthy diet,” wrote Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. Ten weeks into the ship’s voyage to the New World, the passengers and crew were down to their last casks, and along with rationing the supply came scurvy. Thankfully, the 1621 harvest yielded a barley crop.

A Nov. 15 blog post from the Soil Science Society of America helps put that achievement into perspective. “For those first Pilgrims, getting to that bountiful harvest was a huge feat. Very few Pilgrims had farming or gardening skills. The soil found in present-day Massachusetts was also very different from their Native England. In the coastal area of Plymouth Colony, soils are shallow, sandy and stony. This contrasts with the farmlands of southern England, with deep, nutrient-rich loamy soil. In addition, the English soils were more fertile and tillable by hand or with draft animals to a depth of perhaps 6-12 inches. Massachusetts coastal soils were not deep, and sit on top of hard bedrock. The Pilgrims did not bring draft animals (horses or oxen) and although the sandy soils could be tilled or cultivated by hand, they were very stony, making this difficult work.”

One farming technique the colonists eventually learned from their indigenous neighbors was combining the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—in what to me sounds much like a Mesoamerican milpa. “Unlike most plants, beans can pull nitrogen from the air, and working with soil microbes, turn it into nitrogen compounds the plants use for food. In return, the plant gives the soil microbes sugars they need. These three plants grown together on the same land took full advantage of the available water, nutrients, and sunlight and provided a diversity of food and protection from total crop failure. Even if one of the Three Sister crops would fail, one or both of the others might make up for that loss.”

Massachusetts may be our collective cultural home for Thanksgiving, but according to National Geographic, in 1541 Spaniard Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his troops celebrated “a Thanksgiving” while searching for New World gold in what is now the Texas Panhandle. “Later such feasts were held by French Huguenot colonists in present-day Jacksonville, Florida (1564), by English colonists and Abenaki Indians at Maine’s Kennebec River (1607), and in Jamestown, Virginia (1610), when the arrival of a food-laden ship ended a brutal famine.”

“By the time the Pilgrims got to Plymouth,” drawled a historian friend from the eastern shore of Virginia, “we were having cocktail parties.”

Tomorrow, whether you are connecting with people you love over drinks or a pull-out-all-the-stops spread, know that you are participating in something that’s as American as—well, corn, squash, and beans.

I’m not sure when Plimoth Plantation’s page on Thanksgiving history was written, but it certainly is apropos today. “Despite modern-age turmoil—and perhaps, even more so, because of it—gathering together in grateful appreciation for a Thanksgiving celebration with friends and family is a deeply meaningful and comforting annual ritual.... The need to connect with loved ones and to express our gratitude is at the heart of all this feasting, prayerful thanks, recreation, and nostalgia for a simpler time. And somewhere in the bustling activity of every November’s Thanksgiving is the abiding National memory of a moment in Plymouth, nearly 400 years ago, when two distinct cultures, on the brink of profound and irrevocable change, shared an autumn feast.”