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Was Turkey on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?

Turkey may not have headlined the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Historical accounts suggest a varied spread, with wildfowl, venison, and harvest crops taking center stage. While turkey's presence is debated, the meal symbolized unity and gratitude. Curious about what else graced the Pilgrims' plates? Join us as we delve into the flavors of the past.

Thanksgiving has always been a time to give thanks, but it hasn't always been a time to eat turkey.

Back in 1621, turkey was not typically on the menu for Native Americans or the Pilgrims who joined them for the feast that has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving. Research suggests that the meal probably included other birds, like duck and geese, as well as deer (venison), clams, oysters, eel, and plenty of vegetables. There might have been pumpkin, but not as a pie. Cranberries, if eaten at all, were probably chewed on in their raw form.

Although the Pilgrims likely had seafood, deer, and waterfowl such as geese and ducks at the first Thanksgiving, they probably didn't eat turkey.
Although the Pilgrims likely had seafood, deer, and waterfowl such as geese and ducks at the first Thanksgiving, they probably didn't eat turkey.

Another faulty fantasy about that long-ago meal is that it was a family gathering. In fact, it was political in nature, as two potentially hostile groups met to hash out a way to live together. And while women might have cooked, they weren't sitting at the table. It was a male-only event that, according to most sources, lasted three days, not one. In other words, they might not have eaten turkey, but they did talk it.

A Thursday in November:

  • Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863, giving in to Sarah Josepha Hale, who had petitioned Lincoln and other leading politicians to do so for 17 years.

  • Although other presidents had granted pardons to turkeys before, George H.W. Bush formalized the annual reprieve in 1989.

  • It might not have been eaten back in the day, but turkey is a Thanksgiving staple now, with Americans eating 704 million pounds (319 million kg) of it every Thanksgiving.

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    • Although the Pilgrims likely had seafood, deer, and waterfowl such as geese and ducks at the first Thanksgiving, they probably didn't eat turkey.
      Although the Pilgrims likely had seafood, deer, and waterfowl such as geese and ducks at the first Thanksgiving, they probably didn't eat turkey.