Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

How the First Thanksgiving Foods Differed From Today

May 3, 2021
Turkey for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner

Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

How did the turkey become a popular Thanksgiving centerpiece? And what did the Pilgrims eat at the first Thanksgiving? The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been continuously published since George Washington’s time, says it’s a bit of a mystery, but it helps if you know a little history about this all-American feast day. If you wish to pay tribute to a truly traditional Thanksgiving meal from 1961, consider featuring venison, goose, chestnuts, and succotash with these historically-inspired recipes.

Did Pilgrims Eat Turkey at Thanksgiving?

The short answer: Nobody is sure if turkey was served at the harvest celebration held by the pilgrims of Plymouth colony in 1621, but “wild fowl” was certainly mentioned in historical accounts.

The best existing account of the Pilgrims’ harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, author of Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow’s first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering “wild fowl“ for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese. Turkeys are a possibility, but were not a common food in that time. We also know that the Wampanoag Native Americans brought five deer with them, so venison was on the menu. Also, seafood was plentiful and common at that time, including lobsters and clams. 

Specifically, Edward Winslow’s account states:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety 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 upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

There was only one other first-hand account of that first Thanksgiving; colonist William Bradford kept a journal titled Of Plimoth Plantation.

William Bradford is the the governor Winslow mentions above. He described the autumn of 1621 as follows:

“And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.” 

So, he does mention wild turkeys, but not whether such birds were served at any Thanksgiving gathering.

How the First Thanksgiving Foods Differed From Today

We do know that many of the Thanksgiving dishes that we enjoy today were not served at the Plymouth feast. However, from Edward Winslow’s account (above) we do know some of the foods enjoyed. The meal was probably quite meat-heavy, including:

  • Venison
  • Fowl (geese and duck)
  • Corn
  • Nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, beechnuts)
  • Shellfish

While native cranberries did grow wild at that time, there’s no record of them having been served. Beans, pumpkins, squashes, and corn (served in the form of bread or porridge) were also part of the meal thanks to the Wampanoags, who were seasoned gardeners and employed the Three Sisters method for growing their main crops.

What Did Pilgrims NOT Eat at the First Thankgiving?

The colonists didn’t have potatoes, butter, nor flour, so you can safely assume there weren’t any mashed potatoes or pies. 

  • Potatoes (white or sweet)
  • Bread stuffing (wheat flour was rare)
  • Sugar
  • Green bean casserole
  • Pies


Historically-Inspired Thanksgiving Recipes

If you wish to pay tribute to a truly traditional Thanksgiving meal from 1961, consider featuring venison, goose, chestnuts, and succotash.

See more Thanksgiving side dishes.

Wild turkey

So, How Did the Turkey Become a Thanksgiving Centerpiece?

When Bradford’s journals—lost for many years during the Siege of Boston in 1775—resurfaced and were reprinted in the 1850s, the idea of early colonists hunting wild turkeys caught the nation’s imagination (even though he never specified that turkey was served at the Thanksgiving feast).

Plus, wild turkeys were quite plentiful back then. Discover more about “The Wild Turkey: History of an All-American Bird.”

Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, would later present the turkey as the big bird at the head of the table and published many recipes.

Hale campaigned for Thanksgiving Day to be recognized as a national holiday, writing numerous presidents. Finally, Abraham Lincoln took notice. After 1863, the year when President Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day a national holiday, turkeys began to land on dinner plates across the country.

Every November since 1947, a “National Thanksgiving Turkey” has been presented to the U.S. President. Harry Truman got the first one. During an official ceremony in the Rose Garden, the president “pardons” the turkey, meaning its life is spared and it does not get eaten.

White vs. Dark Meat Facts

Did you know: Wild turkeys tends to have mostly dark meat because they are strong runners and they also fly.  Domestic, factory-raised turkeys have both white and dark meat because their muscles aren’t used as often.

Turkeys use their legs and thighs to run, which requires more oxygen-carrying blood vessels; this makes the meat darker. However, breast muscles aren’t used as much (especially by domestic turkeys) so there are less blood vessels delivering less oxygen; this makes the meat whiter.

See more more turkey trivia and Thanksgiving table talk.

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