Up Your Thanksgiving Acumen


Guys only. The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a three-day feast. In attendance were about 50 Pilgrims and about 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe, including their chief, Massoasoit. This was not a family celebration; it was a political gathering. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag were solidifying a military alliance. The women were doing their thing, over an open fire.

Duck, duck, goose. Wild turkeys were certainly plentiful in 1621, but whether or not they were on the table that year remains unknown. According to a journal kept by English governor William Bradford, several men were sent out on a “fowling mission” ahead of the “Thanksgiving” feast. There could have been turkey, but more likely migrating ducks or geese. Venison was a sure bet.

The fixins? How about some sobaheg (a stew of corn, root vegetables, beans, squash and some meat), clams, lobster, cod, eels, turnips, onions and greens?  Ixnay on the cranberry sauce and pies; they came along later after we learned to tap maples for syrup and import sugar from the Caribbean. The Pilgrims did not have sweet tooths (sweet teeth?).

The turkey is a respectable bird. Benjamin Franklin was a big fan of our native bird. Contrary to popular belief, he never did propose to make the turkey the official symbol of America. An excerpt from a letter written to his daughter stated, “For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly … For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours …” Benjamin Franklin, a locavore through and through. 

It’s all thanks to a magazine editor (can I get an amen?) Turkey did not become the star for another two hundred some odd years. Credit magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale and her prose for championing the turkey. “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of its basting.” Mrs. Hale spent 17 years campaigning for Thanksgiving to be named a national holiday. Her letters to Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan failed to sway them to support a national holiday (until that time, the only national holidays were Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day). Her letter to President Abraham Lincoln, along with a need for unity as the Civil War stretched on, sealed the deal. In 1863 Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November would be a “day of thanksgiving and praise.” Fast forward 76 years to a bleak economy and a looming world war. President Franklin Roosevelt yielded to pressure from retailers and business leaders and moved Thanksgiving back a week, to the fourth Thursday in November (some Novembers, 1939 for instance, have five Thursdays), thereby increasing the number of shopping days before Christmas. Yikes, could he have ever anticipated Black Friday, Cyber Monday or now Gray Thursday???

Extinction? By the early 1900s, Americans had hunted wild turkeys to near extinction. Thanks to conservation efforts and regulations our wild turkey population is rebounding, with a population upwards of seven million.

Meleagris gallopavo is not a big chicken. Turkeys and chickens are completely different species from two different parts of the world. Domestic turkeys are direct descendants of the North American wild turkey, hailing from our own backyards. Chickens have been around so long that nobody is quite certain where they came from, although the Indian subcontinent seems to be the most plausible theory.

So why do we call them turkeys? One thought is that due to inexactitude of maps and New World trade routes, along with the resemblance to the much smaller guinea fowl, which actually came from Turkey, English speaking folk believed these large “Turkey birds” came from Turkey.

Jakes and Jennies. Baby turkeys are called poults. Young male turkeys are called jakes; females are called jennies. Mature males are called toms or gobblers, for obvious reasons. Mature female turkeys do not gobble (they cluck) and are simply called hens.

You are getting sleepy, very sleepy. Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that our body uses to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and sleepiness. All meat contains some tryptophan, but it is the combination of turkey and the side dishes that makes you so drowsy. Carbohydrates from stuffing, mashed potatoes, pies and the like stimulate the release of insulin which then sweeps most amino acids from the bloodstream into the muscles. Tryptophan is an amino acid that not affected by insulin so it sticks around a while yielding that dreamy and contented post-Thanksgiving drowsiness.

We Americans love turkey. It is estimated that the average American consumes nearly 18 pounds of turkey each year and that as a country we will feast on 675 million pounds of turkey on November 27.

Butterball to the rescue. In 1981 Butterball started its annual Turkey Talk-Line, fielding questions from fledgling turkey roasters. In the inaugural year the line received 11,000 calls and are now up to just over 200,000 calls during the holiday season. The most asked question is how long it takes a turkey to thaw. If you purchased a frozen turkey, Butterball or otherwise, make sure you leave plenty of time to thaw it. In-fridge thawing is recommended by the ever-helpful folks at the Butterball helpline. Allow one day for every four pounds of turkey. If you have a 20 pound turke, it had better be in the fridge by Saturday. At the other end of the turkey roasting spectrum are queries about thawing a turkey in the bathtub, scrubbing the cavity with a steel scouring pad, solar “baking” a turkey in an oven bag in the car, “roasting” a small turkey on a radiator or roasting a five pound turkey for 24 hours. The folks at Butterball have no doubt heard it all.

At odds with frozen turkeys, I am thankful that Sam Sifton maintains an Ask Sam tab on his website, appropriately named “Thanksgiving 911.”