Why we eat what we eat on Thanksgiving

Cynthia Robertson

Thu October 27, 2016 5:00pm

Almost as soon as autumn arrives people think ahead to November and start talking turkey with all the fixings for Thanksgiving. Hardly a moment is given to asking why all the fuss about preparing the big bird? Where and when did it all start? Why turkey and not prime rib?
The holiday feast dates back to November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth for an autumn harvest celebration — which lasted for three days. It was a celebration of thanks with the Wampanoag, who had helped them bring forth their first crops. That day was the first Thanksgiving.
According to letters and records kept by early American settlers, beef and fowl were on the menu. More than likely, a turkey hunting trip had taken place before the meal. Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote in a letter of such a trip. But other records show that the hunters returned with ducks, geese and even swans. There was also deer that first Thanksgiving. Culinary historians have speculated that the deer was roasted on a spit and a hearty stew was made of the meat.
While corn and green beans make up the majority of the vegetable offerings on our contemporary Thanksgiving plate, the Pilgrims had a wide variety from their crops of onions, spinach, cabbage, carrots and peas. But instead of eating corn on the cob or as individual kernels, the Pilgrims removed the corn from the cob and made cornmeal, which was boiled and pounded into a thick porridge sweetened with molasses.
Unlike our Thanksgiving table, fruits were a big part of the Pilgrim’s meal. Indigenous to the Cape Cod region were blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries — and cranberries. However, they did not make the cranberry relish that we are so familiar with because the sacks of sugar they had with them on their trip across the Atlantic were nearly depleted by November 1621. Not until 50 years later did cooks begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment to meat.
But why and when the turkey became the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is still a mystery. One theory attributes the Thanksgiving turkey to the Queen of England in the 16th century. In that time, a fleet of Spanish ships had sunk on their way to attack England. The story is that Queen Elizabeth received this news while eating dinner and so thrilled she was with the news she ordered another goose be served. Apparently, the early settlers were inspired by the queen’s actions and they roasted a turkey, seeing as how wild turkeys were plentiful, a native bird of North America.
In fact, Benjamin Franklin claimed that the turkey was a more suitable national bird for the United States than the bald eagle. Thankfully not everyone agreed with Franklin and the bald eagle reigns supreme. But the turkey gets center stage for one major holiday.
When everyone is finished stuffing themselves on Thanksgiving, loafing around on the couch, it is tempting to blame the turkey for its sleep-inducing tryptophan. Truth is, it is likely all the carbohydrates everyone has eaten, from the stuffing to the bread, potatoes and pumpkin pie, are just as guilty.
And speaking of pumpkin pie, the orange gourd was also a native fruit of northeastern America. The early settlers hollowed out the pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasted the gourds whole in hot ashes. Pumpkin pie as we know it is much more palatable. That is one more thing to be thankful for.