The tradition of having a roasted turkey for Thanksgiving dinner began in 1621 at Plymouth Colony in what is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. What became known as the first Thanksgiving, was a grand feast that was prepared and shared by the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, and featured foods that were native to the New World. According to that tradition, the Pilgrims received those foods as gifts from their Native American neighbors. Other provisions supplied for the feast by the Indians included seafood, waterfowl, venison and other wild game, as well as berries, fruits, pumpkins and squash. But what impressed the Pilgrims the most were the tasty roasted wild turkeys.
Today the custom of having roasted turkey for Thanksgiving dinner continues. And many of the same foods that were served at that first Thanksgiving dinner remain on the menu as well. But that wasn’t always the case. Turkey did not become common Thanksgiving Day table fare until the early 1800s. Perhaps it was Alexander Hamilton’s declaration that “no Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day” that revived the tradition. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday and turkey once again became part of the traditional dinner.
The early settlers dined on wild turkeys, which differ quite a bit from the juicy butterballs that we’re accustomed to today. All of the meat on a wild turkey is dark, including its breast, and its long, stringy drumsticks are good for exactly that—beating on a drum—or for making turkey soup at best. The wild turkey is native to North America and was common throughout all of what is now New York State south of the Adirondacks during the period of European colonization. But turkey habitat began to disappear when settlers cleared forests for timber and farmland, and turkey numbers significantly declined. In more recent times, natural succession, reforestation, and effective wildlife management programs have all worked together to restore wild turkey populations in the state.
Today, it’s the domestic turkey that graces Thanksgiving Day tables across the nation. American turkey growers produce nearly 300 million turkeys annually and process over 5 billion pounds of turkey meat valued at more than $8 billion. And fully one-third of those turkeys are stuffed with grandma’s savory secret-recipe dressing and served for dinner on Thanksgiving Day – along with berries, fruits, pumpkins and squash. Happy Thanksgiving!