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Why the Biggest Thanksgiving Lie May Be the Turkey on Your Table

As our food has become more processed and industrialized, so has Thanksgiving dinner. Sadly, it's the turkey itself that has changed the most since the time of the Pilgrims.

What could be more natural a pairing than turkey and Thanksgiving? For one day a year, we sit down with our family and friends to dine on thoroughly American, seasonal fare, just like the Pilgrims did, together with the Native Americans, when celebrating their first successful harvest.

Only, very little of that myth that we retell each year is true. Among the falsehoods are the turkeys who sit in the center of so many Thanksgiving tables -- these birds bear very little relation to the turkeys the pilgrims would have enjoyed -- if they did at all.

To start, the feast labeled as the "first Thanksgiving" likely was not that at all. The feast commemorated a treaty between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. The Pilgrims held many days of thanksgiving, but those involved prayer more than food. By the time America became a nation, thanksgiving dinners were common, and turkey was often a part of the meal. But so were chicken, goose, pork, lamb, duck, and beef, according to the many accounts we have of early thanksgivings. And these celebratory meals had no association (yet) with Pilgrims, nor were they necessarily held in November. For example, one day of thanksgiving was declared when America won its Revolutionary War.

The first person to associate the Pilgrims, Native Americans, and a festive meal involving turkey -- and to name it the "first Thanksgiving" -- was likely Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister in Boston, who published Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth in 1841. Merely 22 years later, Thanksgiving became a national holiday. The woman who sealed the deal was Sarah Josepha Hale, after she became famous for her novel Northwood; or, a Tale of New England, which devoted an entire chapter to describing Thanksgiving and ultimately became the model for what a Thanksgiving dinner ought to be. Hale embarked on a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and succeeded when President Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

But why was it turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie that we still eat today? According to Andrew F. Smith, author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, because they're cheap. (Well, at least the traditional meal is thoroughly American in that sense. Americans spend less disposable income than any other nation on food, and not just on Thanksgiving.) Smith says, "While many other main dishes had been tried, it was turkey that thrived, mainly because it was less expensive than the alternatives.... The traditional side dishes -- stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, succotash, corn bread, cranberries, and pies -- were inexpensive as well, so that Thanksgiving dinner was affordable to all but the poorest Americans." (Farmer Frank Reese, Jr. disagrees, saying Americans probably settled on turkey because once domesticated turkeys became the norm on farms in the mid-1800s, they would have been born in the spring and ready for slaughter around Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

Was it coincidence that these inexpensive foods were all of the New World, or were they perhaps inexpensive because they could all be produced locally? And yet, as our food has become more processed and industrialized, so has Thanksgiving dinner. In some cases, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as cranberries, which could once only be enjoyed as a wild food, are now cultivated commercially. But along the way, we've gotten canned cranberry sauce that retains the shape of the can after it's dumped out and boxed mashed potatoes. And, as turkey is king in a Thanksgiving meal, it's the turkey itself that has changed the most since the time of the Pilgrims.

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