Ask an American what is always included at the Thanksgiving dinner table and they'll quickly respond "turkey." Thanksgiving is often called Turkey Day because of the importance of the bird to the meal. But, surprisingly, the Pilgrims may not have eaten turkey at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
While the Pilgrims feasted the Wampanoag tribe for three days in Plymouth Colony, they probably focused on other waterfowl like geese, swans, and carrier pigeons. Edward Winslow, an English leader, attended that first Thanksgiving and wrote that the governor sent men to go "fowling" while the Native Americans brought five large deer. William Bradford, the governor of the colony, said that besides the waterfowl, they had wild turkeys, venison, and a large store of Indian corn.
If turkey was served, it may have been used in several different ways over the three day feast. On the first day, pieces of venison and whole wildfowl would have been roasted on spits above coal fires. On later days, the wildfowl meat would be used in stews and soups. The Pilgrims occasionally stuffed birds with herbs, onions, or nuts but would not use bread in the stuffing mixture, as we do today.
In the next century, turkey continued to be only one of the many meats served at the Thanksgiving feast. For example, a 1779 Thanksgiving menu included the following mains: Haunch of Venison Roast; Chine of Pork; Roast Turkey; Pigeon Pasties; Roast Goose. Another menu explained that roast beef was the preferred main at Thanksgiving dinner but as beef was not readily available during the Revolutionary War, the colonists ate a variety of other meats including turkey.
But by the mid 1800s, turkey rose to importance as the centerpiece of the meal. In a 1886 cookbook titled "The Kansas Home Cookbook," the authors explained that "Our Thanksiving-dinner table is not furnished as our grandmothers loaded their in the olden time. The board no longer groans, either literally or metaphorically, under its burden of meats, vegetables, and sweets." Instead, the authors suggested that home cooks make several soups, fish, vegetables, and "[t]hen--the central theme, the point of clustering interests--the Thanksgiving turkey!"
In the mid 1900s, turkey was so integral in Thanksgiving traditions that turkeys continued to sell well during the Great Depression and ten million pounds of turkey were shipped to soldiers in 1946 during World War II.
In one of the more unusual Thanksgiving traditions, every year, one very lucky turkey receives a Presidential reprieve while his mates wind up on the dinner table. The tradition began in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy sent back a 55 pound turkey saying "We'll just let this one grow." President Richard Nixon sent turkeys to a Washington D.C. petting farm while President George H.W. Bush gave the first official pardon to a turkey in 1989. Since then, one turkey has been pardoned each year at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation.
Unfortunately, these turkeys rarely live long because they have been bred for eating rather than living long lives.