Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, people travel, families reunite and friends make plans to join together for a day of food, fellowship and gratitude. It’s Thanksgiving! The one meal we truly look forward to all year long. With all the tradition and history surrounding Thanksgiving, we thought we’d dig deeper to find some fun facts that you might not know about the holiday. Our list is suitable for the whole family. So feel free to share these Thanksgiving tidbits around your table this year.
#1 – The year of the first Thanksgiving was 1621. Giving thanks was a normal part of life for the pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had certain days set aside for such gratitude. It was a part of their religious and spiritual practices. However, those days of giving thanks did not generally include a feast. But in 1621, Governor William Bradford planned an extra special celebration to give thanks for their first successful harvest. He also wanted to honor the Wampanoag Indians who had helped the settlers learn to farm the land.
#2 – The first Thanksgiving feast lasted 3 days. Governor Bradford planned the Thanksgiving celebration to include hunting, games, eating and other entertainment. In today’s tradition, the big meal is artfully prepared for hours; we sit and eat together for 30 minutes; then linger for a while and head home. But the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians enjoyed three leisurely days of food and festivities.
#3 – The original menu was quite a bit different than the one we have today. Sadly, neither the Indians or the Pilgrims posted pictures of their Thanksgiving spread on Instagram. So we can’t determine exactly what they ate that day. But in some of their journals, the Pilgrims did mention a few aspects of the meal. One of the entries, by Pilgrim Edward Winslow said that the Indians had brought five deer to the celebration. They were likely cooked over an open fire. Winslow also wrote that Governor Bradford had sent several men out to hunt wild fowl before the feast. So we know, for sure, that wild birds and venison were on the first Thanksgiving menu. Similarly, it was noted that corn was abundant at the meal. Nobody was eating it on the cob though. Back then, the corn would have been ground, then boiled and used to make a type of corn porridge.
Some historians believe there was no turkey at all, during the 1621 feast. And others speculate that wild turkeys may have been part of the “wild fowl” that Winslow referenced. It’s a possibility they were on the menu. But there’s no actual written evidence of it. And though there isn’t much more written accounts of what the Pilgrims and Indians ate during the festival, we do have a good idea of what might have been on the table.
Most Thanksgiving experts agree that the meal would have included lobster and mussels, as well as bass and oysters. All of these seafood items were easy to come by in the area and would’ve been good choices to feed a large crowd. There were also plenty of vegetables (besides corn) that grew in the area of Plymouth. Those were onions, lettuce, leeks, carrots, cabbage and beans. Some common fruits were plums, blueberries, gooseberries and cranberries.
As far as dessert goes, there were no pumpkin pies at the feast. The pilgrims hadn’t yet built ovens and didn’t have wheat flour at that time. There is evidence that the Pilgrims did eat pumpkin though. And some have suggested that they used the outer part of the pumpkin to hold a type of honey sweetened custard.
#4 – Sarah Josepha Hale was known as the Godmother of Thanksgiving. Peggy Baker, former Director of the Pilgrim Society, wrote a book called, The Godmother of Thanksgiving: the story of Sarah Josepha Hale. In the book, Baker tells the story of a remarkable woman who began a crusade to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.
In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, America’s first female magazine editor, began speaking out in support of a national Thanksgiving holiday. Back then, Thanksgiving was an informal holiday in some parts of the country. The dates varied from state to state. Some states celebrated in October, others in December. It was more popular in the southern states. Hale, who was also the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb, started a campaign to declare the fourth Thursday of November a national holiday. She wrote editorials in newspapers. And she wrote a letter to President Zachary Taylor, requesting that he declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. He wouldn’t do it. So Hale waited and wrote to President Millard Fillmore when he took office. No dice. Then she wrote to President Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and finally Abraham Lincoln. It was Lincoln that ultimately decided to push for legislation that would make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. That was 17 long years after Hale had begun her quest. Her persistence enriched the United States with a well-loved Thanksgiving tradition.
#5 – Since 1963, US presidents have been pardoning turkeys. Back in the late 1800’s, Horace Vose, a poultry dealer from Rhode Island, began sending plump turkeys to the White House as annual gifts. Those birds were well received by the first families. Other turkey farmers and organizations also sent well-fed turkeys to the presidents over the years. Generally, those birds were plucked and cooked. It was in 1963 that President Kennedy decided to release his fowl gift instead of eating it. Then in 1989, President George H. W. Bush began a more formal tradition of “pardoning” the turkey. Thanks to his example, successive presidents have followed suit and each year, in November, the United States President presents a pardoned turkey (or two) to live out his turkey life on a farm, instead of being butchered and served on a Thanksgiving platter. How sweet.
#6 – We can thank the Thanksgiving holiday for the invention of TV dinners. In 1953, the Swanson food company made a pretty hefty mistake. They largely overestimated the demand for Thanksgiving turkeys that year. Their error was so big, that they ended up with a whopping 260 tons of surplus frozen turkeys thawing on freight cars. Yes, that’s 520,000 pounds of frozen poultry.
Some very quick thinking on the part of a Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas saved the company from a huge financial loss. Thomas had recently seen some airline food on a Pan American flight in divided aluminum trays. His wheels were turning when he suggested they portion out individual servings of turkey with gravy, corn bread stuffing, sweet potatoes and peas into the aluminum trays to sell as complete frozen meals. The Swanson company ordered 5,000 aluminum trays and got to work making the first TV dinners. (What did they have to lose?) And no kidding, in the first year that Swanson offered them, they sold ten million turkey TV dinners! We’re thinking Gerry Thomas probably got a raise.
#8 – The wishbone tradition has been around since 322 B.C. If you’re not familiar with it, the wishbone of the Thanksgiving turkey is generally considered good luck. Two people grasp the two sides of the wishbone from the Thanksgiving bird. They each tug on it. And when it breaks, the person holding the largest piece of the bone gets to make a wish. The tradition actually goes way back to the time of the Etruscans (a wealthy civilization of ancient Italy). The Etruscans passed it onto the Romans. The Romans took the custom with them to England and the English colonists carried the wishbone tradition across the pond to America.
#9 – Most people enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers more than the actual Thanksgiving meal. According to a poll taken by CNN, 79 percent of Americans surveyed report that Thanksgiving leftovers are more important to them than the Thanksgiving meal. Just don’t tell Grandma.
#10 – It takes around five hours to cook a 20 pound stuffed turkey. In case you ever get elected to cook the family bird at Thanksgiving, plan on making a day of it. Cooking that turkey at 325 degrees will take five hours. And that’s not including the time it takes to prep the turkey, make the stuffing and let it cool before you carve it. Don’t plan on taking a nap while it’s in the oven either. Most of the recipes for turkey instruct the cook to baste the bird every 20 to 40 minutes after it has cooked for a while. Now that’s a high maintenance dinner.
#11 – The average American consumes 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving. The Calorie Control Council did some research and found that the typical Thanksgiving meal contains around 3,000 calories. They found that, on average, Americans consume that 3,000 calories during the big meal and another 1,500 calories while nibbling on appetizers, drinks and snacks throughout the holiday. What’s worse? We’re also guilty of devouring 229 grams of fat on Thanksgiving. Now that’s a little much.
#12 – If you have a question about cooking your turkey, you can call the Turkey-Talk-Line. The Butterball company opens a special Turkey-Talk-Line during the months of November and December, every year for people who are stumped in the kitchen. Butterball began offering this service in 1981. When they started, they had six home economists answering questions over the phone. Now, 36 years later, their army of over 50 turkey experts fields more than 100,000 questions each holiday season. And you don’t even have to buy a Butterball turkey to use the service. They’ll gladly help any home cook who needs a little advice.
Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in tradition, family togetherness and gratitude. It’s also a special day with a lot of fun history and colorful stories. Whether you’re hosting a houseful of out-of-town relatives, serving meals at your local soup kitchen, or meeting up with your closest friends and neighbors for a nice dinner, we hope this Thanksgiving holiday brings you warmth and joy. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
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CNN – Thanksgiving by the Numbers – http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/21/living/thanksgiving-by-the-numbers/
Inquisitr – No Turkey at the First Thanksgiving? – https://www.inquisitr.com/1639242/no-turkey-first-thanksgiving-menu/
History – First Thanksgiving Meal – http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/first-thanksgiving-meal
Epicurious – The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving – https://www.epicurious.com/holidays-events/the-real-story-of-the-first-thanksgiving-menu-recipes-article
Pilgrim Hall Museum – The Godmother of Thanksgiving – http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/
White House History – Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey – https://www.whitehousehistory.org/pardoning-the-thanksgiving-turkey
Smithsonian Institute – How 260 tons of Thanksgiving Leftovers Gave Birth to an Industry – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tray-bon-96872641/
Butterball – Calculators and Conversions – http://www.butterball.com/calculators-and-conversions
Butterball – Turkey-Talk-Line – http://www.butterball.com/turkey-talk-line
Calorie Control Council – Stuff the Bird Not Yourself – https://caloriecontrol.org/stuff-the-bird-not-yourself-how-to-deal-with-the-3000-calorie-thanksgiving-meal/