Other protein used to be the most popular choice.
Why do we eat turkey in Thanksgiving? It’s a question many of us may be asking ourselves as we carry a 15-pound bird home and into our refrigerator; while we baste and temperature control indefinitely; and while we wait for the steaming fowl to cool down so we can start our annual carving battle. Why are we doing this? Tradition and festivity, above all, but the turkey was not always at the center of the festive table.
In 1621, when the pilgrims of England celebrated their first Thanksgiving, an autumn holiday, the tableau in Plymouth, Massachusetts looked quite different. And according the smithsonian, very little is recorded about this multi-day feast, so much of our history is conjecture about seasonal culinary options, as well as mythology. The deer was probably the protein of choiceprovided by deer hunters from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe—indigenous peoples who lived in the region for about 10,000 years before the Mayflower landed. The Wampanoag farmed and foragedand ate predominantly Beanscorn, roots and berries, plus eggsfish, shellfish, and some meat, such as hunted deer and wild birds.
So where did the turkey come from? “There was a tradition of serving large wild birds in medieval Europe, especially the peacock, which was skinned, cooked and sewn back into its feathers for presentation,” says Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific. “When turkeys were introduced from America and guineafowl from Africa [to America] in the 17th century, they were served in the same way.” Even the turkey would be whole and with feathers sticking out of a pie, the familiar preparation for the settlers. Sour jelly was often served alongside these birds, with blueberries be local to Massachusetts.
Though Turkey probably not around in 1621, fall harvest dinners continued, and turkey was a popular source of protein. It was indigenous to the area, and larger than chicken, duck or geese, which makes it economical to serve a whole group. Also, slaughtering a fresh turkey sense to settlers—it did not provide milk like cattle, nor edible eggs, but produced much meat and was prominent in North America.
The turkeys served in the 1700s and later, until the 1900s, were wild birds: North American species that are leaner and very different from the turkey we are familiar with today, often farmed. and raised to be primarily breast meat, Albala notes.
In 1870, when Thanksgiving became an official national holiday on the last Thursday in November, roast turkey it was nationally recognized as a celebration party. Much of it, however, is due to mythology and pop culture. The popular first novel by Sarah Josepha Hale, Northwood: A New England Story, described a Thanksgiving feast around 1827, filled with a large family table covered with roast turkey, gravy, and vegetables. Across the pond, Charles Dickens popularized a prized christmas turkey in A Christmas Carol, replacing the traditional goose with a more iconic bird. Just like the riff on home cooks TikTok Trending today, 19th-century hosts were eager to jump on the turkey bandwagon.
Now the turkey is the essential Thanksgiving centerpiece, but the Thanksgiving table has still evolved. “Even though the traditional parts are usually there, people add dishes from their own backgrounds,” says Albala. Turkey can be traditionally roasted with fall herbs, or fried in Cajun seasoning, or on the shell like a Peking duck. italian sausage or baked pasta dishes can be served as a side, or perhaps biryani or fried riceor potato kugel or kimchieither rice and beans, or really, anything. Turkey may be a mainstay for the foreseeable future, but what comes with it is as malleable as America’s multicultural makeup.
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