Why We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving

Unless you grew up in a predominately vegetarian household, chances are that turkey was a mainstay at your Thanksgiving holidays. As kids at school, we were taught why we celebrate Thanksgiving. But, have you ever stopped to wonder if a turkey was really cooked and served at the first Thanksgiving?


Earliest accounts of the first Thanksgiving do share that wildfowl was present in the area and also probably part of the menu. However, wildfowl can mean anything from turkey to duck and geese.

There is no way of knowing for sure what was on the table, but most historians place their bets that venison was the meat most likely served. Back then, venison was the main meat eaten and there are many accounts of its presence at early feasts.

Keep in mind, it took centuries for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month.

Like traditions always do, the food served on that day evolved over centuries. In reality, wild turkey was native and plentiful to North America. It’s more likely that our tradition of serving turkey has to do with its availability and not what was served on the first Thanksgiving.

In case you are keeping score, potatoes weren’t native to the region and unlikely to be served back then either. See how the Thanksgiving meal has evolved by checking out this fun Thanksgiving dinner infographic.

As you gather around the table with family this year and share what you’re thankful for, share the story of what the first Thanksgiving meal was really like. While it may not have been on the original menu, we’re thankful it’s become the traditional protein. Not having turkey, stuffing and all the fixings for dinner doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving.