Friday, November 21, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #96: Why Do We Eat the Things We Eat for Thanksgiving?

If you’re reading this in the United States, Thanksgiving Day is nearly upon you/us. (If you’re reading this in Canada, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving, and if you’re reading this in Europe, yes, we really do eat that much, and no, we don’t do it every day. Honest.) If you’re the red-blooded American I know you are, you’re fixin’ to chow down on turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, stuffing and Waldorf salad.

Wait, was it just my family that served Waldorf salad? See, this is why I don’t go home for Thanksgiving anymore.

But you probably never gave much thought to why we eat the specific things we eat on Thanksgiving. You probably just assumed that we eat the same things the Pilgrims ate at the First Thanksgiving. But while the Pilgrims definitely feasted on some unspecified “wild fowl,” we have no way of knowing that it was turkey. They also didn’t eat potatoes, or pumpkin pie, and probably didn’t eat cranberry sauce – if they did, they would have sweetened it with maple syrup because granulated sugar wasn’t a thing back then. Don’t even get me started on the Waldorf salad.

In fact, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at the first Thanksgiving feast ate a lot of venison, thanks to the generosity of the Wampanoag chief, who donated five deer to the feast. The “wild fowl” they ate could have been turkey, but since wild turkeys are aggressive, hard to catch and kind of stringy, they probably ate pheasant, goose or duck instead. They also probably ate a lot of fish and seafood, onions, nuts, beans, a cornbread dish known as boiled bread, and squashes of all kinds, including pumpkins, most likely stewed with butter, vinegar, and spices.

So, if the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag ate random birds, venison, fish, and boiled things for the first Thanksgiving, why do we eat turkey and pumpkin pie? Well, obviously because pumpkin pie is much, much better than boiled pumpkin slurry, duh.

There are different theories as to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Some feel that the choice was a practical one – turkeys are perhaps the only birds large enough to satisfy the American appetite, I mean, feed the entire family. Turkeys are also native to the Americas, and were apparently almost our national bird, which would have made Thanksgiving interesting indeed.

Others point out that Scrooge gave the Cratchit family a turkey at the end of A Christmas Carol, a book that was published right around the time that enthusiasm for the creation of a national Thanksgiving holiday was building. I never actually read A Christmas Carol because fuck that, so this was news to me.

Yet another theory holds that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition originates with Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, of whom I have written before. The editor of Lady’s Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ms. Hale is credited with single-handedly nagging Thanksgiving into existence by writing letters to Congress, the governors of every state, and five Presidents. In her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England, Ms. Hale wrote of a roasted turkey as the centerpiece of a fictional Thanksgiving meal. The meal also included “a huge plum pudding, custards, and PIES OF EVERY DESCRIPTION,” Mom.

No mention of Waldorf salad, however.

Image by Nillerdk

Hale took things a step further, detailing the preparation of Thanksgiving turkey in her annual November editorials. It would take the 20th century, and the advent of convenience foods, to bring such dishes as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to our modern Thanksgiving tables.

While cranberry sauce was served at Thanksgiving meals as early as 1623 – two years after the first Thanksgiving in 1621 – cranberries grow in New England, and like most berries, they don’t keep well. Thanksgiving was originally a New England tradition, but as it spread across the country thanks to the efforts of Ms. Hale, cranberry sauce did not initially go with it. It wasn’t until 1912 that the inventor of canned cranberry sauce, Marcus Urann, came on the scene and left his mark on both Thanksgiving and the cranberry industry. The innovation made it possible for Americans around the country to enjoy “cranberry sauce” on Thanksgiving Day, and I’m using quotation marks around that because I grew up with homemade cranberry sauce, I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you people.

It almost made up for the Waldorf salad.

By the mid-20th century, the pre-packaged food revolution was under way, bringing such Thanksgiving staples as stuffing (made with stuffing mix), green bean casserole (I don’t know what that is either because I grew up eating string beans that my grandmother grew, stringed while watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and canned herself) and pumpkin pie – made with canned pumpkin puree. Now everyone can have Thanksgiving, even those of us who don’t want to spend half the day doing whatever it is you need to do to a pumpkin to make it fit into a pie shell.

I don't even know what is wrong with you people.

Image by Rick Kimpel