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President Eisenhower carves a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner in 1953.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and family tuck into Thanksgiving dinner in 1953.

Photograph from Bettmann/Corbis

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Updated November 24, 2010

Before the big dinner, debunk the myths—for starters, the first "real" U.S. Thanksgiving wasn't until the 1800s—and get to the roots of Thanksgiving 2010.

Thanksgiving Dinner: Recipe for Food Coma?

Key to any Thanksgiving Day menu are a fat turkey and cranberry sauce.

Some 242 million turkeys were raised in the U.S. in 2010 for slaughter, down 2 percent from 2009's total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Last year's birds were worth about U.S. $3.6 billion.

About 46 million turkeys will end up on U.S. dinner tables this Thanksgiving—or about 736 million pounds (334 million kilograms) of turkey meat, according to estimates from the National Turkey Federation. (See the Green Guide's suggestions for having a greener—and more grateful—Thanksgiving.)

Minnesota is the United States' top turkey-producing state, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Virginia.

These "big six" states produce two of every three U.S.-raised birds, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

U.S. farmers will also produce 735 million pounds (333 million kilograms) of cranberries, which, like turkeys, are native to the Americas. The top producers are Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

The U.S. will also grow 1.9 billion pounds (862 million kilograms) of sweet potatoes—many in North Carolina, California, and Louisiana—and will produce 931 million pounds (422 million kilograms) of pumpkins.

Illinois, California, and Ohio grow the most U.S. pumpkins.

But if you overeat at Thanksgiving dinner, there's a price to be paid for all this plenty: the Thanksgiving "food coma." The post-meal fatigue may be real, but the condition is giving turkeys a bad rap.

Contrary to myth, the amount of the organic protein tryptophan in most turkeys isn't responsible for drowsiness.

Instead, scientists blame booze, the sheer caloric size of an average feast, or just plain-old relaxing after stressful work schedules.

What Was on the First Thanksgiving Menu?

Little is known about the first Thanksgiving dinner in the Plimoth (also spelled Plymouth) Colony in October 1621, attended by some 50 English colonists and about 90 Wampanoag American Indian men in what is now Massachusetts.

We do know that the Wampanoag killed five deer for the feast, and that the colonists shot wild fowl—which may have been geese, ducks, or turkey. Some form, or forms, of Indian corn were also served.

But Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation, said the feasters likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, carrots, and peas.

"They ate seasonally," Monac said, "and this was the time of the year when they were really feasting. There were lots of vegetables around, because the harvest had been brought in."

Much of what we consider traditional Thanksgiving fare was unknown at the first Thanksgiving. Potatoes and sweet potatoes hadn't yet become staples of the English diet, for example. And cranberry sauce requires sugar—an expensive delicacy in the 1600s. Likewise, pumpkin pie went missing due to a lack of crust ingredients.

If you want to eat like a Pilgrim yourself, try some of the Plimoth Plantation's recipes, including stewed pompion (pumpkin) or traditional Wampanoag succotash.

First Thanksgiving Not a True Thanksgiving?

American Indian peoples, Europeans, and other cultures around the world often celebrated the harvest season with feasts to offer thanks to higher powers for their sustenance and survival.

In 1541 Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his troops celebrated a "Thanksgiving" while searching for New World gold in what is now the Texas Panhandle.

Later such feasts were held by French Huguenot colonists in present-day Jacksonville, Florida (1564), by English colonists and Abnaki Indians at Maine's Kennebec River (1607), and in Jamestown, Virginia (1610), when the arrival of a food-laden ship ended a brutal famine.

(Related: "Four Hundred-Year-Old Seeds, Spear Change Perceptions of Jamestown Colony.")

It's the 1621 Plimoth Thanksgiving that's linked to the birth of our modern holiday. The truth is the first "real" Thanksgiving happened two centuries later.

Everything we know about the three-day Plimoth gathering comes from a description in a letter wrote by Edward Winslow, leader of the Plimoth Colony, in 1621, Monac said.

The letter had been lost for 200 years and was rediscovered in the 1800s, she added.

In 1841 Boston publisher Alexander Young printed Winslow's brief account of the feast and added his own twist, dubbing the 1621 feast the "First Thanksgiving."

In Winslow's "short letter, it was clear that [the 1621 feast] was not something that was supposed to be repeated again and again. It wasn't even a Thanksgiving, which in the 17th century was a day of fasting. It was a harvest celebration," Monac said.

But after its mid-1800s appearance, Young's designation caught on—to say the least.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863. He was probably swayed in part by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale—the author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb"—who had suggested Thanksgiving become a holiday, historians say.

In 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt established the current date for observance, the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving Turkey-in-Waiting

Each year at least two lucky turkeys avoid the dinner table, thanks to a presidential pardon—a longstanding Washington tradition believed to have originated with U.S. President Harry Truman.

Since 1947 the National Turkey Federation has presented two live turkeys—and a ready-to-eat turkey—to the President, according to federation spokesperson Sherrie Rosenblatt.

"There are two birds," Rosenblatt explained, "the presidential turkey and the vice presidential turkey, which is an alternate, in case the presidential turkey is unable to perform its duties."

Those duties pretty much boil down to not biting the President during the photo opportunity with the press. In 2008 the vice presidential bird, "Pumpkin," stepped in for the appearance with President Bush after the presidential bird, "Pecan," had fallen ill the night before.

Starting in 2010 the lucky birds will no longer share the same happy fate as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks—for the past five years pardoned turkeys have gone to live at Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch in California.

This year's birds will instead follow in the footsteps of the first president and live out their days at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

After the holiday season, however, the two turkeys won’t be on public display. These fat, farm-fed birds aren't historically accurate like the wild birds that still roam the Virginia estate.

Talking Turkey

Pilgrims had been familiar with turkeys before they landed in the Americas.

That's because early European explorers of the New World had returned to Europe with turkeys in tow after encountering them at Native American settlements. Native Americans had domesticated the birds centuries before European contact.

A century later Ben Franklin famously made known his preference that the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, should be the official U.S. bird.

But Franklin might have been shocked when, by the 1930s, hunting had so decimated North American wild turkey populations that their numbers had dwindled to the tens of thousands, from a peak of at least tens of millions.

Today, thanks to reintroduction efforts and hunting regulations, wild turkeys are back.

(Related: "Birder's Journal: Giving Thanks for Wild Turkey Sightings.")

Some seven million wild turkeys are thriving across the U.S., and many of them have adapted easily to the suburbs—their speed presumably an asset on ever encroaching roads.

Wild turkeys can run some 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 kilometers) an hour and fly in bursts at 55 miles (89 kilometers) an hour. Domesticated turkeys can't fly at all.

On Thanksgiving, Pass the Pigskin

For many U.S. citizens, Thanksgiving without football is as unthinkable as the Fourth of July without fireworks.

NBC Radio broadcast the first national Thanksgiving Day game in 1934, when the Detroit Lions hosted the Chicago Bears.

Except for a respite during World War II, the Lions have played—usually badly—every Thanksgiving Day since. In this year's game, the 71st, they take on another team with a bit of a Thanksgiving theme—the New England Patriots.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

For a festive few, even turkey takes a backseat to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, originally called the Macy's Christmas parade, because it kicked off the shopping season.

The tradition began in 1924, when employees recruited animals from the Central Park Zoo to march on Thanksgiving Day.

Helium-filled balloons made their debut in the parade in 1927 and, in the early years, were released above the city skyline with the promise of rewards for their finders.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, first televised nationally in 1947, now draws some 44 million viewers—not counting the 3 million people who actually line the 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) Manhattan route.

Thanksgiving weekend also boasts the retail version of the Super Bowl—Black Friday, when massive sales and early opening times attract frugal shoppers.

The National Retail Federation reports that in 2010 some 138 million Americans, about 4 million more than last year, will brave the crowds to shop on Black Friday or on the following weekend.

Planes, Trains, and (Lots of) Automobiles

It may seem like everyone in the U.S. is on the road on Thanksgiving Day, keeping you from your turkey and stuffing.

But just under 40 million of about 308 million U.S. citizens will drive more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home on the 2010 holiday, according to the American Automobile Association.

If you include airline and rail passengers, more than 42 million Americans will travel at least that distance in 2010, an 11 percent increase from last year.

Thanksgiving North of the Border

Cross-border travelers can celebrate Thanksgiving twice, because Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving Day the second Monday in October.

As in the U.S., the event is sometimes linked to a historic feast with which it has no real ties—in this case explorer Martin Frobisher's 1578 ceremony, which gave thanks for his safe arrival in what is now New Brunswick.

Canada's Thanksgiving, established in 1879, was inspired by the U.S. holiday. Dates of observance have fluctuated, sometimes coinciding with the U.S. Thanksgiving or the Canadian veteran-appreciation holiday, Remembrance Day—and at least once it occurred as late as December.

But Canada's colder climate eventually led to the 1957 decision that formalized the October date.

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