Photograph by Richard Nowitz, National Geographic
Updated November 20, 2012
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 2012.
Thanksgiving Dinner: Recipe for Food Coma?
Key to any Thanksgiving Day menu are a fat turkey and cranberry sauce.
An estimated 254 million turkeys will be raised for slaughter in the U.S. during 2012, up 2 percent from 2011's total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Last year's birds were worth about five billion dollars.
About 46 million turkeys ended up on U.S. dinner tables last Thanksgiving—or about 736 million pounds (334 million kilograms) of turkey meat, according to estimates from the National Turkey Federation.
Minnesota is the United States' top turkey-producing state, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, and Indiana.
These "big six" states produce two of every three U.S.-raised birds, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
U.S. farmers will also produce 768 million pounds (348 million kilograms) of cranberries in 2012, which, like turkeys, are native to the Americas. The top producers are Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
The U.S. will also grow 2.7 billion pounds (1.22 billion kilograms) of sweet potatoes—many in North Carolina, Mississippi, California, and Louisiana—and will produce more than 1.1 billion pounds (499 million kilograms) of pumpkins.
Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, 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 amino acid 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. (Take a Thanksgiving quiz.)
What Was on the First Thanksgiving Menu?
Little is known about the first Thanksgiving dinner in 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 pumpkins, squashes, carrots, and peas.
"They ate seasonally," Monac said in 2009, "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. (See "Sixteen Indian Innovations: From Popcorn to Parkas.")
First Thanksgiving Not a True Thanksgiving?
Long before the first Thanksgiving, American Indian peoples, Europeans, and other cultures around the world had 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.")
But it's the 1621 Plimoth Thanksgiving that's linked to the birth of our modern holiday. To tell the truth, though, 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.
Each year at least two lucky turkeys avoid the dinner table, thanks to a presidential pardon—a longstanding Washington tradition of uncertain origin.
Since 1947, during the Truman Administration, the National Turkey Federation has presented two live turkeys—and a ready-to-eat turkey—to the President, federation spokesperson Sherrie Rosenblatt said in 2009.
"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.
The lucky birds once shared a similar happy fate as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks—a trip to Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch in California, where they lived out their natural lives.
Since 2010, however, the birds have followed in the footsteps of the first President and taken up residence at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.
After the holiday season, however, the two 40-pound (18-kilogram) toms won't be on public display. These fat, farm-fed birds aren't historically accurate, unlike the wild birds that still roam the Virginia estate.
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. For the 2012 game, the 73rd, they take on the Houston Texans.
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.
A National Retail Federation survey projects that up to 147 million Americans will either brave the crowds to shop on 2012's Black Friday weekend or take advantage of online shopping sales, a slight dip from last year's 152 million shoppers.
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.
That's not exactly true, but 43.6 million of about 314 million U.S. citizens will drive more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home for the 2012 holiday, according to the American Automobile Association. That's a small 300,000-person increase from last year.
An additional 3.14 million travelers will fly to their holiday destination and 1.3 million others will use buses, trains, or other modes of travel. These modestly rising Thanksgiving travel numbers continue to rebound slowly from a steep 25 percent drop precipitated by the onset of the 2008 recession.
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 Canada's Thanksgiving 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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