It was about fifteen years ago.  The last week of November was near, and the Good Mrs. Benson and her sister were bemoaning the approach of Thanksgiving.  They were, after all, the ones who were inevitably stuck with the grunt work of the holiday, the grocery shopping, setting the table, and, of course, the preparation of the family feast, and they weren't shy in reminding us of that.


My father-in-law, Royce, had an answer to that.  He clapped me on the shoulder and said to his daughters, "Why don't you let us make Thanksgiving dinner this year?"


That was definitely O.K. by them.


"I'll cook some steaks on the grill," said Royce.  "Or maybe a a big standing rib roast."


I had a suggestion, too.  "I could cook Italian.  Maybe do a lasagna."  (I make a mean lasagna.  That's why I never order it in restaurants; I know it won't be as good as mine.)  "Or my lobster pasta."


"That sounds good, too," said Royce.


"No!" shrieked the gals.  "You can't have steak or lasagna on Thanksgiving!"


"Why not?" we asked.


"Because you have to have turkey!"






Yes, why?


It's one of those automatic things that nobody thinks about:  Thanksgiving = turkey.  You can probably smell the aroma of the bird roasting your oven while you're reading this.  If the question of why it's always turkey for Thanksgiving ever crossed your mind, you probably figured it was because turkey was the principal dish served at that first Thanksgiving in America, back in 1621.


And you'd be wrong.  As wrong as those folks who believe that our country instituted daylight-saving time because of the farmers.


Let's step into the Wayback Machine for the next few paragraphs and take a look at what was on the menu on that first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts.


That would be the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Colony in the autumn of 1621.  Most of what we know about that event comes from two surviving documents:  On Plymouth Plantation, a journal kept by the colony's governor, William Bradford; and a letter written by colonist Edward Winslow, to a friend back in England.  Both described the menu of that first fall harvest in broad strokes.


". . . [B]esides waterfowl," described Bradford, "there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc."


And Winslow wrote, "Our governor sent four men on fowling . . . they four killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company for almost a week."


Mr. Winslow also mentioned the Indians' contribution to the banquet table:  "They went out a killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and the others."


So, yes, turkey was served at that historical feast.  But it took no precedence over the goose and duck ("waterfowl") and deer ("venison") also offered.  Given what we know of the hunting efforts of the time, the available game probably included swan and pigeon.  In addition, culinary historians are fairly certain that cod, bass, and shellfish also made it to the table, based upon another snippet of Edward Winslow's letter home.


"Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fist," the colonist reported.  "In September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter.  We have mussels . . . at our doors."


It prompts the question:  with such a variety of proteins enjoyed by the settlers and the Indians, why doesn't Norman Rockwell's famous painting "Freedom from Want" depict Grandma bringing in a platter of roast stag or spotted bass?  What made the humble gobbler the centrepiece of the Thanksgiving dinner?




Part of the reason goes back to the woman who was responsible for there being a Thanksgiving holiday at all.  Those of you with loooooong memories will remember by first Thanksgiving entry, 'way back in 2007, about Sarah Josepha Hale.


Mrs. Hale, mother, milliner, poetess, authoress, editor, and, incidentally, the writer of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb", was responsible for the national holiday of Thanksgiving.  Oh, sure, early Presidents had issued proclamations naming a single, specific day to be set aside as a holiday for people to offer God thanks for their happiness.  But it hadn't taken root as a regular thing.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the northern and southern portions of our country were growing increasingly divided, and hostile, over the issues of slavery and government representation.  Mrs. Hale viewed the concept of Thanksgiving as a national therapy, its annual celebration serving as a reminder of the spirituality and community of Americans, that we were more alike than we were different. 


"There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate," she wrote.  "They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures."


She used her pulpit as editor of Godey's Lady's Book---at the time, the largest-selling national magazine in America---to build support for an official holiday of Thanksgiving to be observed every year.  By 1863, enough governors had joined in, by making Thanksgiving a state holiday, that President Lincoln gave in to the political pressure and established the last Thursday in November as an annual national holiday of "Thanksgiving and Praise".


But as for Mrs. Hale's part in making turkey the star of the Thanksgiving table, we have to go back to 1827, when her novel Northwood was published.  A slice-of-life tale set against the political turmoil in America at the time, Mrs. Hale jumped the gun on her achievement by including a scene depicting a Thanksgiving holiday.  It seemed she had a pretty strong idea on what should be served at such a celebration, as well.


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 the basting.





Now, to be sure, Sarah Josepha Hale influenced women all over the country as an arbiter of fashion and cooking and literature.  She was the Martha Stewart of her time.  But, for the idea of turkey as the star of the Thanksgiving feast to really catch on, it would take someone on the national stage.


Leave it to a Rhode Island farmer named Horace Vose to work that out.


In 1873, Vose received a request from his state's senior U.S. senator, Henry B. Anthony.  The President, Ulysses S. Grant, had heard of the strong reputation of Rhode Island turkeys as the tenderest, most savoury kind, and Senator Anthony wanted to show the truth of it.  The legislator asked Vose, a successful livestock dealer, to send President Grant the finest example of a Rhode Island turkey that he could lay his hands on.  Vose agreed, and in November, a spectacular thirty-eight-pound Meleagris gallopavo was delivered to the White House.


That Thanksgiving, the President and his family dined heartily.  Grant was so impressed with the sumptuousness of the bird that he personally wrote Vose a letter of gratitude.


The livestock merchant should've known what he was getting himself into.  The following year, Grant let it be known that he was expecting another Rhode Island turkey for Thanksgiving, and Vose complied.


Once is an event; twice is a tradition.  From then on, for the next thirty-eight years, Horace Vose sent a turkey to the President for Thanksgiving.  He selected them with meticulous care, crossing the state to find the choicest birds.  They never weighed less than thirty pounds and usually topped the scales closer to fifty pounds.  Sometimes, he had to go out of state, to Connecticut or Virginia, to find just the right bird, but to preserve the reputation of Rhode Island, he always shipped it from his home in Westerly.


Though a Republican, Vose was non-partisan in his gifting.  Republican and Democrat Presidents alike received a Vose turkey, with the poultry man's compliments.


Vose's contributions to the White House dinner table went relatively unnoticed outside of Washington until 1896.  That was a big year for him.  He supplied a Thanksgiving turkey not only to sitting President Cleveland, but also to President-elect McKinley, and one overseas to Queen Victoria.  That got the attention of the New York Herald, which published an article on Vose's history of providing the Presidential gobbler.  From then on, newspapers covered the annual delivery of the White House bird.  Vose became known as "the Poultry King of Westerly".


Vose died in 1913, after filling the Thanksgiving tables of eleven Chief Executives.  By then, serving turkey for the holiday was a White House custom and, as far as the public was concerned, if it was good enough for the President, it was good enough for them.  Whether Vose had intended it or not, his annual donation had been the perfect marketing approach.


Turkey was now the accepted Thanksgiving entrée on American tables, and the idea was reïnforced by the advertising of the day.  A 1920 ad for Mazola Oil suggested a Thanksgiving menu headlined by roast turkey with bread stuffing.  In 1922, Campbell Soups asked families if they were "all set for turkey!"  Advertisements for self-basting roasters and new-fangled electric refrigerators bally-hooed their convenience in preparing the turkey for Thanksgiving.  And, in 1929, the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, in Atlantic City, offered a chef-prepared Thanksgiving turkey banquet for folks too lazy to do their own holiday cooking.


At the turn of the century, the November covers of national magazines like Life and Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post began to include turkeys.  Within a decade, the gobbler was a standard feature on Thanksgiving covers.  The humble bird was now the official star of the Thanksgiving feast.


And we've never looked back.  In 1946, the National Turkey Federation took over Vose's practise of sending Thanksgiving birds to the White House.  Only, now, it was reflecting the national tradition of serving turkey for the holiday dinner, instead of setting it.


So, that's why you're eating turkey this afternoon, instead of prime rib or sea bass, or even lasagna.  Chalk it up to one of the greatest achievements of product promotion in American history.


Well, maybe not so great . . . if you happen to be a turkey.



* * * * *


From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Day, and many more of them!

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Happy Thanskgiving to you , sir!

Hey, if turkey is good enough for the JLA and the JSA, it's good enough for me!

A wonderful read as always, Commander. Happy Thanksgiving!

Well, I had lasagna for Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! And Everyone here!

As a vegetarian I haven't had turkey for Thanksgiving in easily 25 years (though I've been at family events where it was served).

Great story as usual for your Thanksgiving histories.

I hope everyone here had a good Thanksgiving too.

Playing catch-up here. A great holiday post, as always.

There is occasional public confusion about the date of Thanksgiving. Obviously, Lincoln set it as the last Thursday in November. At some point after that it was changed to the fourth Thursday. So in years when there are five Thursdays in November (like 2018 and 2023) it isn't on the last Thursday..

I think it was done to increase the shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas but don't know when it changed.

Richard Willis said:

Playing catch-up here. A great holiday post, as always.

There is occasional public confusion about the date of Thanksgiving. Obviously, Lincoln set it as the last Thursday in November. At some point after that it was changed to the fourth Thursday. So in years when there are five Thursdays in November (like 2018 and 2023) it isn't on the last Thursday..

I think it was done to increase the shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas but don't know when it changed.

Commander Benson spoke to that in Deck Log Entry # 186 Happy Thanksgiving 2015!, See it here.

That's another keeper, Commander!

I do like turkey for Thanksgiving, I must admit, but I also make a turkey four or five other times a year. Tracy won't break the wishbone with me anymore because I "cheat: (i.e., win), so I started sticking them on our spice rack over the oven. there are quite a few of them by this point. 

Thanks, CK. I read that in 2015 and it had slipped my mind, which can be very slippery.

You're welcome. Somehow, I have a long memory for what I read on this site, and I love digging things up here. 

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