Before we go any further, let’s agree to disagree on the many and conflicting finer details of the first purported “Thanksgiving” dinner of 1621 where English colonists (Pilgrims) allegedly broke bread with Native Americans (Wampanoag).
Indian Country Today Media Network reported in “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story,” that, based on research conducted at the Plimoth Plantation living museum:
“When the Wampanoag showed up, they were invited to join the 50 Pilgrims in their harvest feast, but there was not enough food to feed the chief and 90 warriors (who quickly added five deer to the existing banquet of fowl).”
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ramona Peters tells ICTMN otherwise about the Pilgrims and “the Indians” harmoniously sharing the “first Thanksgiving” meal: “Yeah, it was made up. It was Abraham Lincoln who used the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together. He was trying to calm things down during the Civil War when people were divided. It was like a nice unity story."
Participants in that frequently misrepresented event nearly 500 years ago are hard to find and interview to confirm any facts.
What has been widely reported is the menu—and even that has its variations. Edibles consisted of a surf-and-turf spread of venison, wild turkey, guinea fowl (also called turkey, although Natives referred to it as peru), pea fowl, goose, duck, swan and partridge, along with the surf part consisting of clams, eel, cod and lobster, along with maize bread, pumpkin and other squashes.
“A feast is a feast, lore or fact, and the beautiful thing about culture is that it evolves,” says noted Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, who grew up with tantalizing aromas in his grandmother’s kitchen. “It was common practice then to have two meals, one featuring lamb, the other with turkey.”
"Shellfish or water creatures for dinner was a common practice in the early days," Bitsoie added.
Just like today's lobster and steak version of the surf and turf, the meat is still the main focus.
Historically, writes Harley Shaw in Stalking the Big Bird, “Wild turkeys have proliferated and been gobbled up for eons with remains found in Pleistocene deposits as old as a million years.”
From that initial East Coast multi-day expanded brunch developed what has become known as Thanksgiving, officially proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Turkey—then and now—was a centerpiece of the November gustatory delight, albeit the more slender wild version versus today’s plumper domesticated variety. For those who enjoy carving and consuming the big bird, we’re lucky it’s even still around.
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, Meleagris gallopavo almost became our national bird. It’s a good thing the eagle won that prize, because turkeys, the largest ground-nesting bird in North America, came darn close to total extinction in the early 1900s when miners, loggers, ranchers and settlers decimated their numbers.
Today, thanks to sportsmen’s restoration efforts, there are well over 7 million gobblers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico representing five distinct sub-species that occur in the wild—and show up on holiday platters, roasted, basted, brined or deep-fried. “What we do in our dedication to the conservation of the wild turkey makes a difference,” says Turkey Country editor Karen Lee.
While the bird is cooking at your house, ponder these industry statistics: EatTurkey.com reports the average turkey at 88 percent of households will run about 16 pounds and will feed 6 adults and 6 children. Believers of The American Farm Bureau Federation apparently have larger appetites, because their average birds feed 10 and cost close to $50. For those in the money-is-no-object category, the Bureau cites a $261 cost for a 20-pound bird purchased from specialty on-line meat purveyors.
The numerous variations in size and cost pale in comparison to the myriad of ways to cook (and re-heat) turkey—everything from sweet smoked to grilled in many forms—kebabs, scallopini, burritos, burgers, enchiladas, chili, poppers, casseroles, stir fry and pot pies to the standard turkey soup and sandwich. Or try the more exotic black walnut-crusted turkey or a Cajun Mardi Gras wild turkey breast.
“Don’t get caught up serving the same foods, prepared the same way,” says Matt Lindler, editor of the Wild About Turkey and More cookbook. “Mix things up this year. Try a bird stuffed with crispy bacon and sautéed onions or turkey in cranberries and chardonnay over wild rice. A traditional Thanksgiving bird can be wildly unorthodox if given the chance.”
Traditional or experimental, should things go awry in the kitchen, help is available as it has been for the past three decades. Simply dial the toll-free Turkey Talk-Line at (800) BUTTERBALL. Operators are standing by.