Amid all the stuffing, turkey, and pumpkin pie it’s useful to reflect for a moment on precisely what we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. Every American knows the story of the First Thanksgiving: seeking religious freedom, the Pilgrims established a colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Native Wampanoag taught them how to plant corn and hunt. When the crops were harvested, the Pilgrims celebrated the First Thanksgiving by gobbling up turkeys, saucing cranberries, mashing corn, and squashing pumpkins to make pies. It was such a memorable event that Americans have honored it ever since. America celebrates many holidays, but Thanksgiving is the one most associated with American culinary traditions. The centerpiece for the feast is the turkey, and it is accompanied by gravy made from drippings, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie.
New Englander, Sarah Josepha Hale was the driving force behind inventing the Thanksgiving myth. She wrote a highly idealized account of a fictional Thanksgiving dinner in her novel Northwood (1827). As editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, she commenced a campaign to make it a national holiday. For years Hale published editorials and penned letters to state and territorial governors, requesting each to proclaim the last Thursday in November “Thanksgiving Day.” Success was within reach in 1860, when thirty-three states and territories celebrated Thanksgiving on the same day, but her campaign floundered as the Civil War engulfed the nation. Hoping to save the day, she requested that President Lincoln declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Lincoln did just that a few months later to celebrate the North’s military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.
Since that time the Thanksgiving holiday has evolved. What has become fascinating about the traditional American Thanksgiving is that many of its traditions did not begin in America. True, the turkey originated in North America, but domesticated turkeys were quickly exported to Europe, where they were adopted almost immediately. When English colonists settled in North America, they were already familiar with the turkey– in fact they imported domesticated turkeys from Europe shortly after they arrived in the New World. Outside of the frontier, the ways that colonists prepared and served turkey, with stuffing and gravy, were European in origin.
Likewise, sweet pies were English inventions, and the first pie recipe to include pumpkins as an ingredient was published in England. While cranberries never became popular in Europe, the ways of making cranberry sauce in America were clearly European in origin. Sweet potatoes originated in South America and were quickly exported to Africa. They came to what is today the United States via the slave trade.
During the Renaissance Europeans preferred to debone turkeys, which left them smaller and more manageable. If the bones were removed skillfully, the turkey would retain a semblance of its original shape. In the preparation classically known as a gallantine, the boned turkey would be filled with a stuffing to restore its plump shape, so that when presented at the table it would resemble a whole turkey. When carved, the slices would include both stuffing and meat. For significant feasts during the Renaissance, pigeons, ducks, geese, chickens, and smaller fowl were boned, boiled separately, and then stuffed one inside the other, and finally into the turkey. In America, this was named the turducken, which consists of a boned chicken stuffed in a boned duck stuffed in a boned turkey with dressing layered between each of the birds. It was made famous by the celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme, who served it since the 1960s at his family’s restaurant, K-Paul’s, in New Orleans. John Madden, who coached the Oakland Raiders, picked up a Turducken in New Orleans, and served it to his football team on Thanksgiving Day. Madden still sings the Turducken’s praises as a television commentator for football games to this day.
These European culinary traditions have been greatly modified in America. Large numbers of immigrants who had not celebrated Thanksgiving in their native lands readily adopted the holiday and the dinner. In the process, they added to and modified the traditional Thanksgiving menu. Immigrants frequently celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey, although it is not always the central feature of the Thanksgiving dinner, while side dishes and desserts are often reflections of the immigrants’ culinary heritage. Like America itself, the Thanksgiving dinner is now various and multicultural in heritage.
Today retailers, most famously Macy’s, have commercialized Thanksgiving Day as the start of the Christmas shopping season. Illustrators, filmmakers, and television producers have generated new Thanksgiving images. College coaches have selected this day to demonstrate the prowess of their football teams, and are thankful when their games are nationally televised. Others use the day to protest gluttony and obesity or poverty and hunger, while vegetarians and animal rights activists campaign against the turkey holocaust. Still others have chosen not to celebrate it at all. Some Native Americans, for instance, proclaim it “A National Day of Mourning.” However, our desire to associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and the prominence of the turkey at dinner has not faded, for they are symbols of a basic truth dear to most Americans: our nation is a land of abundance and for this we owe thanks to God.
Please note, this article was originally published on the OUPblog in 2005.