What came first, the turkey or the pumpkin? Will Martin looks into the origins of Thanksgiving Dinner

'Freedom from want' by Norman Rockwell (1943)

Being very much the Englishman, I’ve never known an awful lot about Thanksgiving, with my knowledge being limited to that episode of Friends where Monica puts a turkey on her head. However considering that I’m supposed to be AHA’s dedicated student foodie, I thought it might be interesting to explore the origins of the food that is seemingly everywhere throughout North America at this time of year.

For those of us unfamiliar with exactly what Thanksgiving is, it is a holiday celebrated in November, allowing the American people to give thanks, especially to God, as stated by President Lincoln in 1863 when he declared the official holiday. However, Thanksgiving’s origins can be traced to a feast held by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621, to celebrate their first harvest. 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans are said to have attended the feast, which lasted three days.

'The First Thanksgiving' by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (1915)

Obviously if you ask people what they associate with Thanksgiving dinner, 99.9% will say the turkey. Turkey has become so commonplace on the Thanksgiving table that many Americans now call the day ‘Turkey Day’. But why exactly is it that the turkey is so utterly ubiquitous on the tables of Americans on the third Thursday of November? To be honest, there is no definitive answer. It is known that at the ‘First Thanksgiving’, with the Pilgrims, the centrepieces of the meal were beef and an ‘assortment of wild fowl’, but we do not know exactly what these fowl were. We do however know that in a letter sent before the feast, Pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions going hunting for wild Turkeys.

Another tale, most likely apocryphal, is that Queen Elizabeth I, upon being informed of the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was so delighted that she ordered an extra goose to be prepared for dinner that evening. Some argue that the early settlers took inspiration from this action, but chose to roast turkey instead of goose.

'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Whilst the turkey is very obviously the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner, there are of course a multitude of accompaniments and side dishes which are equally important and delicious. Cranberry sauce, different types of squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes are just a few of the foods eaten during the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and it is known that the vast majority of these foods were either native to America, or were brought over on the Mayflower. As well as being native to America, many of the foods consumed at Thanksgiving dinners are seasonal, especially the squashes and pumpkins served. These have always been fruits associated with the Autumnal harvest, and therefore it seems apt that they are eaten at a festival, which initially existed to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrims had survived their first year in the New World and had managed a successful harvest.

Whilst it may be a holiday celebrated in only some parts of the world, the food history of Thanksgiving is fascinating and manages to provide an insight into how the Pilgrims lived in the early days of Plymouth colony and how their struggle shaped the America we know today. Now, off for some leftover turkey!

All images courtesy of Google

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *