Historians: Thanksgiving hasn't changed much

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


Commercially raised turkeys weren't on the menu in 1621 when Plymouth settlers and native Americans held the first Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey's wild cousins and venison were the main course. Peg Skorpinski photo.

15 NOVEMBER 00 | From the first Thanksgiving to today's turkey burgers, the wild bird has been a part of the American tradition dating back hundreds of years.

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 may have been history's most important potluck dinner. The pilgrims and native Americans each contributed the foods they knew and grew, and in 379 years, the basic menu hasn't changed all that much.

"A great store of wild turkeys, and venison from the Indians' hunt, was prepared as a harvest celebration in 1621," said the College of Letters & Science's James Kettner, an authority on early American history. "The Plymouth settlers had been through a hard year after arriving in 1620, and only 50 had survived the first winter. The Wampanoag Indians living in Plymouth joined them in a Puritan harvest celebration after a plentiful summer and fall, and cooked deer and corn, which the Englishmen knew nothing about."

Reading from a letter from Edward Winslow, dated 11 December 1621, to a friend in England, Kettner described the first Thanksgiving:

"'Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that day so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst our other recreations, we exercised our arms. Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor and the captain and others."

While the turkey hasn't changed, some of the basics, like corn, sure have. According to the University of Michigan's Richard Ford, a type of maize called Northern Flint maize would be similar to the corn eaten at that first Thanksgiving feast.

They probably didn't eat it on the cob with butter or salt, though. "Most likely they removed the kernels, ground them up and prepared them as a form of soup or put it with wood ash and made a kind of a hominy," Ford said.

Pumpkins have changed too. They weren't always bright, orange and plump. "The first pumpkins we had were very small, gourd-type things," Ford said.

Benjamin Franklin was the first to propose the turkey as the official United States bird, after expressing dismay that the bald eagle had been chosen instead. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle's "bad moral character," saying, "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turn turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."

Once that score had been settled, turkeys became part of the traditional fall harvest holiday. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, supposedly as a response to a campaign organized by a magazine editor, Sara Joseph Hale. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day forward one week to its present date.

In 1999, the National Turkey Federation reported that about 273 million turkeys were raised. They estimated 45 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter.

Some tips on keeping your holiday feast low cal
"Cut out all of the fat from the turkey after you open it," said Joanne Ikeda, a Berkeley nutrition education specialist. "When you prepare the broth from the giblets, let the broth cool, then skim off all that fat. Stay away from butter. Deck up the dinner with green beans and lots of other vegetables. Use whole wheat crusts for your pumpkin pie."

Eat white meat, which is less caloric than dark meat, she said. Save the dark meat for grilling, barbecuing and soups. Dark meat holds up well in rich marinades.


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail