Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why did turkey become the national Thanksgiving go-to dish? Gianna, age 10, Phoenix, Arizona
Have you ever wondered why Thanksgiving revolves around turkey and not ham, chicken, venison, beef or corn?
Almost 9 in 10 Americans eat turkey during this festive meal, whether it’s roasted, deep-fried, grilled or cooked in any other way for the occasion.
You might believe it’s because of what the Pilgrims, a year after they landed in what’s now the state of Massachusetts, and their Indigenous Wampanoag guests ate during their first thanksgiving feast in 1621. Or that it’s because turkey is originally from the Americas.
But it has more to do with how Americans observed the holiday in the late 1800s than which poultry the Pilgrims ate while celebrating their bounty in 1621.
The only firsthand record of what the Pilgrims ate at the first thanksgiving feast comes from Edward Winslow. He noted that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, arrived with 90 men, and the two communities feasted together for three days.
Winslow wrote little about the menu, aside from mentioning five deer that the Wampanoag brought and that the meal included “fowle,” which could have been any number of wild birds found in the area, including ducks, geese and turkeys.
Historians do know that important ingredients of today’s traditional dishes were not available during that first Thanksgiving.
That includes potatoes and green beans. The likely absence of wheat flour and the scarcity of sugar in New England at the time ruled out pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. Some sort of squash, a staple of Native American diets, was almost certainly served, along with corn and shellfish.