Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Most of us know that the idyllic image of the first Thanksgiving isn’t really what happened. Yes, records from the time tell us that Pilgrims and Native Americans enjoyed a bountiful meal together to celebrate the harvest, but they weren’t eating turkey with mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and green bean casserole. Nor was that event the first official Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in November of 1863, making it one of many events celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. President Lincoln asked that the nation set aside a day for ”Thanksgiving and Praise” in the wake of the Civil War. Knowing that everyone’s favorite eating holiday didn’t officially exist until the late 1800s, we have to wonder where all the Thanksgiving food
traditions came from.

Though there are certainly other (and better if you’re vegan or vegetarian) options for a main course on Thanksgiving, turkey is definitely the most popular. It also may be one of the only traditional dishes that actually made an appearance on the Pilgrims’ table. It wouldn’t have been the main dish, but probably appeared alongside venison, cod, waterfowl and seasonal vegetables.

The starchy staple originated in South America and was brought over to Europe by the Spaniards where it became a key part of diets. Mashed potatoes were allegedly created in the mid to late 1700s by a Frenchman, which keeps them off the menu at the “first” Thanksgiving. However, no one seems to know how they ended up becoming a modern Thanksgiving staple.

Sweet Potatoes
While we know that drowning sweet potatoes in butter and marshmallows ruins their health benefits, that doesn’t keep the sweet spud off the table. The tradition of serving sweet potatoes with marshmallows began in the 1800s. As sweet potatoes were becoming a more common food in the North, marshmallows were being invented by the French who combined the marshmallow plant root with sugar and egg whites. When marshmallows became more popular, it was a matter of time before they met the new food-in-vogue, sweet potatoes.

These red berries are another food that likely made an appearance at the original Thanksgiving table. Indigenous people had planted and eaten the berries for some time before the Europeans discovered it, and there are records of colonists boiling them down with sugar to use as a sauce with their meat.

Pumpkin Pie
What’s Thanksgiving dinner without pumpkin pie? Also, does anyone eat pumpkin pie any other time? Pumpkin was introduced in Europe in the 1500s, so colonists would have been familiar with the vegetable. However, there aren’t records of pumpkin pie being served with Thanksgiving meals until the early 1800s. By the time Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday, pumpkin pie had become a key part of the holiday meal.


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Edgar Zuim
Edgar Zuim1 years ago

Interesting article. Poor turkey, who has not done anything wrong.

Charlene Rush
Charlene Rush1 years ago

I, for one, am extremely happy with the tradition that has existed for many years.
Admittedly, I eat less turkey than previously, and more of the veges, but the stuffing and pumpkin pie must be had by all.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra1 years ago

Thank you Brandi, for Sharing this!

Susan Hughes
Suzie Hughes1 years ago

Turkey is on everyone's dinner plate because the factory farm big business turkey processors have used their propaganda and spin to put it there. Every ad you have ever seen shows that succulent juicy turkey as it's centerfold. It should show that turkey as it really is.. a bedraggled antibiotic and growth hormone laden, grossly overfat to the point of not being able to walk, pain-filled and abused bird. That might change people's thinking about eating this magnificent and intelligent bird.

Lynn C.
Lynn c.1 years ago


Ken W.
Ken W.1 years ago


criss s.
criss s.1 years ago


Jennifer C.
Past Member 1 years ago


Anne Moran
Anne Moran1 years ago

Because of tradition,, obviously..

Beth Cook
Beth Cook1 years ago

Interesting. However, instead of pumpkin pie in my family we have chocolate cheesecake--no need for any other dessert!