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Was turkey served at the first Thanksgiving?

North Texas Normal School, Thanksgiving play, 1923Many Americans picture the ideal Thanksgiving meal as a fat turkey filled with stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, assorted vegetables and pumpkin pie.

But at the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag ate venison to celebrate the Plymouth colony’s first successful harvest, says Jennifer Jensen Wallach, assistant professor of history. Above, students at the North Texas Normal School's Training School replicating that first Thanksgiving, 1923.

Wallach has taught a course on the history of food and eating in the U.S. and is writing a book about American identity as reflected in food from the Colonial era to today.

Plymouth colony leader Edward Winslow said the Wampanoag brought five deer, so venison was plentiful at the first Thanksgiving, and wild turkey “was almost surely eaten as well,” Wallach says.

Jennifer Jensen WallachAlthough the Pilgrims recovered from an extremely hard winter by learning how to plant native American corn, Wallach says the Pilgrims weren’t exactly happy to be eating it.

“The English who colonized America were extremely reluctant to eat corn or anything else that they associated with the savages. They did everything possible to set themselves apart from the Native Americans. They wanted to eat the meat and potatoes they ate in England, and they wanted wheat for bread. But wheat grown in New England was very susceptible to a fungus, and they produced very little at first,” Jensen, left, says.

Pumpkins and cranberries were also easily available near Plymouth colony, but if they were served at the first Thanksgiving, they weren’t in the form of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, Wallach says.       

She notes that even through the Revolutionary War of the late 1700s, American colonists were eating typically British meat and potatoes.

Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, who decided that it should be held on the last Thursday of November. Wallach says Lincoln was influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote editorials and letters to governors and presidents to call for a national day of thanksgiving. Every president after Lincoln declared observances of thanksgiving, and the date of the fourth Thursday in November was sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday in 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

Wallach says the traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey as the main course, which Hale had advocated, was probably reinforced by Norman Rockwell’s painting, Freedom from Want or The Thanksgiving Picture, which was published in The Saturday Evening Post in March 1943. The iconic painting shows an elderly couple serving a huge turkey to a table of happy and eager children and grandchildren.        

“The actual first Thanksgiving meal may not have been very significant to those who ate it. It was just one of many feast days and thanksgiving days observed by the Pilgrims and Puritans. Thanksgiving as we know it is largely based on myth,” she says.

  • Enter to win a UNT water bottle and eco-friendly shopping bag by sending an email to InHouse with "Thanksgiving" in the subject line by 5 p.m. Nov. 25. Winners will be selected at random from all responses.
- Nancy Kolsti, News Promotions

(Photograph courtesy The Portal to Texas History and The Yucca, Yearbook of North Texas State Normal School, 1923. The school was established as a model public school to give college students experience in teaching.)

Posted on: Thu 17 November 2011

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