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To Turkey Or Not To Turkey

By JUDY COLLIER, Features Writer

It is often assumed that the “first Thanksgiving” included the traditional turkey, but there is no historical evidence that turkey was on the menu in 1621. The Wampanoag people brought deer to the meal, and the Pilgrims brought wildfowl which were most likely duck and geese according to historians. Imagine if we had to bring a deer to our Thanksgiving meal?

The Pilgrims did not necessarily consider that meal a milestone worthy of special consideration. They often gave thanks for the autumn harvest and shared meals. Days of Thanksgiving were fairly common amongst the colonists of New England. Throughout the colonies, Americans held their own unofficial days of Thanksgiving without any thought to the Plymouth settlers.

By the turn of the 19th century, turkey became the meat of choice on many occasions for giving thanks. Mostly because turkeys were rather plentiful and easily available for slaughter. Cows and hens were useful for milk and eggs, turkeys offered nothing but their meat. Usually, one turkey was big enough for feeding an average-sized family at one meal.

Some people think that the play, “Christmas Carol”, 1843, was the inspiration for the turkey being the holiday meal, but in 1827, author Sarah Hale, played a prominent role in promoting the turkey by devoting an entire chapter, in her book Northwood, 1827, to the roasted bird gracing the head of the table. At the same time, she began pushing a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday to help unify the country that was headed to a civil war.

Sarah’s efforts finally paid off when in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an official American holiday. Before long, stories began to spread about the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving, turkeys, Indians, and the bountiful meal shared. These stories became an integral part of American school children’s learning.

From a more practical standpoint, turkey has remained mostly affordable. With modern technology and modern breeding, turkeys have become larger and cheaper to raise. Ensuring their place on the Thanksgiving table. Thanksgiving is not, nor has been a day of celebration for all people. The American Indians of New England have been publicly mourning on Thanksgiving Day for centuries.

The violence that took place during the later 1600’s, was when the colonies declared war on the Wampanoag people. It was said that up to 30% of the English, and 50% of the Native American populations were destroyed. There were many conflicts between the English and Native Americans not only in New England but also in New York and Virginia. Due to our recent struggles with racial justice, some are saying it is time to reevaluate the meaning of Thanksgiving Day all together! Please, say it isn’t so!

A man by the name of Frank James, a Wampanoag activist, helped establish a National Day of Mourning in 1970. He suggested that the Wampanoag welcoming the English settlers might have been their biggest mistake ever! On Thanksgiving Day, Native Americans gather in Plymouth Massachusetts for prayers, speeches, and the beating of drums before marching through the historic district in Plymouth.

Turkey might not have been on the menu in 1621, but neither was cranberry sauce! That delicious concoction requires lots of sugar which was an expensive luxury, rare in the early 1600’s for the colonists. It wasn’t until 1663 that the sweet sauce accompanied the turkey at a meal. Even white or sweet potatoes weren’t available in 1621. Pumpkin pie wasn’t at the meal either! They lacked the butter and flour to make a pie crust. They also lacked an oven. Pumpkin pie may have graced the dessert table as early as 1628, but it is not certain.

I am glad I live in this century! What would a feast be without turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, jello creations, hot yeast rolls, and that creamy pumpkin pie dolloped with fresh whip cream? Oh yeah, and your favorite healthy vegetables thrown in too! At my house, a spiral sliced ham must also accompany the turkey and other staples of the meal because half my household doesn’t like turkey! It’s a win for me, I love both! There is nothing better than that turkey and mayo on fresh white bread sandwich later in the day with an extra helping of pumpkin pie and whip cream! Coffee if you prefer, but it is iced tea for me. You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl!

Happy Thanksgiving Y’all!

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