Why turkey for Thanksgiving?

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The first Thanksgiving menu is debated, but it likely included lobster, eel, fish, and venison, but not turkey. Early settlers may have used turkey as a substitute for goose, and its rarity and size made it a special occasion dish. The wild turkey was almost the national symbol of the US, favored by Benjamin Franklin over the bald eagle.

The exact menu of the first Thanksgiving celebration, or more precisely the harvest festival, is still a matter of debate among food historians. A letter written twenty-two years after the event suggests that main courses included lobster, eel, fish, and venison, all foods familiar to Native Americans and readily available in that region of North America. However, one staple conspicuously missing from that first menu is turkey. There is written evidence to suggest that the Pilgrims governor sent men into the field to capture wild birds, but it is very likely that the hunters brought back smaller birds such as quail, pheasants and ducks, not the much larger and more elusive wild turkey. In addition to being a native bird, large birds like the turkey can be symbols of abundance, and the time and effort traditionally required to prepare them means they are often saved for special occasions.

The very first Thanksgiving most likely bore little resemblance to the modern buffet of turkeys, hams, casseroles, and desserts familiar to most Americans. That’s not to say that early settlers didn’t know turkey as a special meal. The bird itself is native to Mexico and the eastern United States, and Spanish traders introduced wild turkeys to Europe during the 16th century. At least the Pilgrims and other early settlers would have recognized the wild turkey as an exotic wild bird.

Some sources suggest that early settlers may have used turkey as a readily available substitute for the traditional goose served on very special occasions in England. The preparation of a large exotic bird during a three-day harvest festival would not be out of the ordinary for English exiles. It is very likely that the turkey was served during the second Thanksgiving and became a tradition among the early settlers.

The substantial size of a typical domestic turkey may also account for its popularity around Thanksgiving. The underlying theme of the holiday is recognizing a wealth of material and spiritual abundance, so the service of a large, tasty bird would fit that theme quite well. Much like Christmas goose or Easter lamb, a Thanksgiving turkey, at least during Pilgrims time, still had an exotic rarity about it. The labor-intensive preparation and long cooking time also meant that most settlers would have waited for a very special occasion to take on the challenge of serving turkeys. Although modern poultry farming methods have made turkeys far less exotic, preparing a whole turkey for Thanksgiving can be seen as a connection to the hearty dinner tables of the past.

The wild turkey almost became the national symbol of the United States, if American statesman Benjamin Franklin prevailed in the debate. Franklin favored the wild turkey over the bald eagle, primarily because it was clearly a native species and possessed a number of strong personality traits that Franklin believed defined the American spirit. The bald eagle was considered too predatory and short-tempered by comparison. Baby wild turkeys are still seen as formidable enemies by small game hunters, unlike their domesticated turkey cousins ​​destined for a spot on the Thanksgiving table every fourth Thursday in November.

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