Above all, Thanksgiving is a day of tradition—a day when the Detroit Lions play football, 45 million turkeys are consumed across the country, and protestors gather on Alcatraz Island to celebrate ‘Unthanksgiving Day’ in memoriam of indigenous people from around the world.
“Along with the 4th of July, it’s certainly our unique holiday,” says Sandra Oliver, co-author of the book Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie. But the tableau we’re bombarded with each year—wholesome family time culminating with a show-stopping turkey—is a far cry from the holiday’s actual roots. Like most holiday stories, Thanksgiving has veered from its original path, smoothing out some rough edges in the process.
“The goal of this book is to try and clear up all the mythology and tales we tell ourselves about our big national holiday,” says Oliver.
Most of the confusion started in the 19th century, around the time our national identity began to coalesce. In the late 1800s, when America begins to fill up with immigrants, people were afraid of newcomers coming in with their own ideas of celebrations and rituals, says Oliver. “The feeling at the time is: they need to learn how to become Americans. And how do you do that? By telling the story of the first Thanksgiving and the virtuous colonists who came here. And you eat Turkey for heaven’s sake.”
In other words, Thanksgiving became a useful tool for indoctrination. “To push that story along, you have to embellish it a bit with more significance perhaps then it may have had.”
In order to pull back the blindfold and uncover some lesser-known facts about the holiday, we turned to Oliver for some Thanksgiving guidance. From how the turkey gained elite status (abroad), to why President FDR tried to swap the date, here are nine surprising facts to drop on your relatives at the dinner table.
The first ‘Thanksgiving’ was a harvest that took place over several days—and not all Native Americans and pilgrims sat with one another.
Oliver says: “In the 1600s, there were probably 40 colonists that survived that winter and managed to grow something and create shelter. As September approached, they thought to themselves, ‘Alright! things are looking okay.’ So the pilgrims decided to throw a harvest festival. It was a joyous atmosphere, and the English were shooting their guns, horsing around. Along come 90 Wampanoag, who are concerned by the noise until they realize it’s a party, not preparation for an attack. They thought, ‘We better bring something to this potluck,’ so they return with five deer. This harvest festival went on for days and involved several meals. The leaders of the colony and Native Americans most likely would have shared the same table, but this was not the case for everyone else. There was a level of hierarchy involved.” (Photo: WikiCommons)
Turkey was not always the star of the show.
Oliver says: “If you look at menus from the 18th century and 19th century, there’s a shift. The menu actually contracts. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Thanksgiving was feast that called for lots of courses to be put on the table. There’d be a great variety of meat, pickles, and vegetables. Turkey was not the main spectacle. There would be other kinds of roasts, fowl, and pork. You’d also have things like puddings and pies. The earlier feast featured two or more courses of mixed sweet and savory food, but this changed in the 19th century when we evolved a meal that began with soup then progressed to savory, followed by a sweet dessert.”
It gained elite status once it made its way back to Europe.
Oliver says: “In the early 19th century, turkey starts to become more of a status food, something the elite would eat in Europe. Turkeys were a New World bird which traveled to Europe after Columbus’ arrival, where they were held in high regard. Gradually, they come down the social ladder somewhat, so that by the early 19th century, they are very genteel fare. While wild turkeys were once plentiful in America (even though we wipe out most of the species), we continue to hold turkey in esteem, and raise and buy domestic ones to serve on important occasions. Victorian Americans liked to imagine that the Pilgrims may have eaten them, too, which adds to their appeal. That’s why Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol decides to replace the Cratchit’s goose—which was considered a lousy meat—with a turkey. Because of this shift in status, people make the assumption that pilgrims must’ve eaten them. It became part of the mythology. But all we really know is that venison and fowl were served at the first harvest feast. It could’ve been wild geese or ducks. But people fall in love with the idea that this status-laden bird might’ve been consumed by the Pilgrims.” (Photo: WikiCommons)
The woman who helped turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday was trying to unify the North and South.
Oliver says: “Sara Josepha Hale, the woman who wrote the nursery rhyme—“Mary Had a Little Lamb”—played a key role in the codification of Thanksgiving. She definitely was a messenger for its cause. She got on the case of several Presidents to get it declared as a national holiday; she thought it would be a useful way of unifying a country that was falling apart. Hale was aware of what the abolitionists were up to and how the South was resisting. The South didn’t buy into the idea first. They thought it was another form of control, a ‘damned Yankee’ holiday. We had to get a little past Reconstruction in order for Southerns think it was worth celebrating.” (Photo: popularmilitary.com)
The inaugural Presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardon may have been a fluke.
Oliver says: “Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented one live turkey to the president. That year, Truman was the first to receive the honor. However, there was no evidence that he pardoned the turkey. The practice did not officially begin until 1989 with George H. W. Bush. Why did this develop? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to say it had something to do with the rise of vegetarianism; there was a sense of treating our fellow creatures with greater respect.” (Photo: WikiCommons)
FDR tried to change the date.
Oliver says: “That incident is referred to as ‘Franksgiving’ [laughs]. But yes, this is true, and it had something to do with creating the maximum number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 1939, retailers asked the President to move the holiday to earlier in the month because the current set-up was dampening holiday sales. He acquiesced, and attempted to declare the third Thursday as Thanksgiving. But people continued to celebrate it on the typical day, and he gave up the pursuit.” (Photo: whitehouse.gov)
We don’t really know who invented the turducken.
Oliver says: “The tradition comes out of the South, and many credit Paul Prudhomme from New Orleans as the creator. I don’t see evidence for or against that. Lots of times, things like this are attributed to chefs like Prudhomme because that person was able to popularize it. If it was a Cajun specialty, and he managed to promote it, that might be the case.” (Photo: culinaryschools.org)
Green-bean casserole was essentially invented by Campbell’s.
Oliver says: “As a matter of fact, the woman who developed that recipe in the test kitchen is still alive. My co-author tried to interview her, but the company refused to let her talk on the phone without a representative on the line to ensure that no proprietary info was leaked out. But yes, it was essentially created by the home economist in the Campbell’s Soup test kitchen. This was in the 1950s, when people had access to canned veggies. It plays into the idea of speed and efficiency—we love things that go together quickly and easily. This casserole was easy to whip together, especially when you’re busy peeling potatoes.” (Photo: soap.com)
Mince-meat pie used to be a staple at Thanksgiving because the pilgrims hated Christmas.
Oliver says: “This dish was strongly associated with the Christmas holiday and was considered very festive. Mince meat is a way of preserving meat—you take out rougher pieces, mince them, and mix them with apples, brandy, and spices, and you have filling for a pie at a moment’s notice. Many of the Puritan settlers who came here recognized this connection, but they felt Christmas had been blown out of proportion. Mince-meat pies were too closely associated with Catholicism, which they were bitterly opposed to. However, many of these people like minced pies nonetheless; it was a part of their food culture. So they decided to make it on Thanksgiving instead.”