Thanksgiving is approaching soon, and those celebrating are most likely looking forward to dinner with friends and family.  Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus and social distancing, Thanksgiving will probably be a little different for most people. However, the Thanksgiving turkey being the centerpiece of many American’s dinner is a factor that is likely to remain the same.

For centuries, turkeys have had to suffer a little extra as people across the nation enjoy eating and preparing them during this time of year. I know that are plenty of people out there who enjoy eating the Thanksgiving turkey and love turning the leftovers into countless turkey sandwiches for the days that follow. However, I am not exactly a huge fan of turkey. Typically, I just eat a little piece to say I had some and save room for the apple pie! Despite my own impartiality to eating turkey, I can’t help but wonder: how did the turkey become the star of everyone’s dinner table on Thanksgiving?

Historians have often debated whether or not turkey was present during the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The meal was shared between the Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony and a local Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts.

Growing up, we are taught to think that the first Thanksgiving was simply an event where different cultures came together to share a meal and build a friendship. This dominant narrative is not the case. The first Thanksgiving took place during a time when the Pilgrims had been starving and dying because they were struggling to harvest crops. Indigenous people provided most of the food for the feast, but the meal was shared by mostly Pilgrims. The friendship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag did not grow after the Thanksgiving meal. About 16 years later, in 1637, the Wampanoag tribe was massacred by white settlers.

After this “shared” meal, Edward Winslow wrote a letter, and the governor of Plymouth William Bradford journaled about the feast. While the exact mention of turkey remains slightly unclear, they both mention wild “fowl.” (What is a fowl, you say? A fowl can refer to any wild bird native to the area during the time.) Despite the debates, it seems like the turkey was most likely there but was not considered the main dish of the celebration at the time.

Two centuries later, President Abraham Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 for the second time. It was technically declared a holiday for the first time by the Continental Congress in 1777. Before declaring Thanksgiving as a holiday Lincoln would hold Thanksgiving dinners at the White House. The Lincoln family also began the White House tradition of pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I bet the lucky chosen turkeys felt very much relieved!

Following the declaration of Thanksgiving as a holiday, by the 19th century, the turkey had fully cemented its popularity as a Thanksgiving stable and iconic resident of American’s Thanksgiving tables for a few potential reasons. The first being that as a native bird to North America turkeys remained plentiful and sustainable, and affordable. Secondly, some attribute the work of Charles Dickens to who strengthened the idea of turkey as a meal for holidays through his work. Another author is Sarah Josepha Hale, who is credited as well. In her novel Northwood, she wrote a chapter describing a New England Thanksgiving that had the turkey served as the centerpiece of the meal.  She also campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday after the Civil War.

While the turkey may not have been the main dish at the first Thanksgiving, that is certainly not the case now. It is clear that Turkey is here to stay and keep its place on the centerpiece of Thanksgiving tables, to the unhappiness of animalists, vegetarians and vegans all across the US.

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  • Tatayana Allen is a recent college graduate of the University of Virginia. During her time at the university she was a Media Studies major and was in the Cavalier Marching Band. Tatayana loves anything related to fashion, music, and photography.