A Fowl Tradition

Digging Into the History of the American Thanksgiving Turkey

In millions of households across America this Thanksgiving, a similar scene will play out. It may be some sort of modern rendition of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want, with a family gathered around the dinner table, waiting for a matriarch to place the most anticipated centerpiece: the Thanksgiving turkey. For many Americans, the last Thursday in November cannot pass without consuming this native fowl along with heaping piles of mashed potatoes, string beans and stuffing. Rest assured, at the Blue Pig Tavern, In Congress Hall’s Ballroom, and in the Ebbitt Room, there will be plenty of the bird to go around. On many menus, the turkey is described as the “traditional thanksgiving dinner,” but was this really what the Mayflower survivors and the Wampanoags passed around the table back in 1621? Did William Bradford and Massasoit take turns carving the very first Thanksgiving’s bird?
The short and simple answer to that is…yes- sort of. By 1621 the separatists that set sail for Plymouth in search of religious freedom dwindled in number due to disease and starvation. They’d landed in November of 1620, and those that survived until spring were able to plant their first crops in the New World. With the help of Squanto, a Native American who learned English as a slave in London, they learned how to hunt fish and grow native crops like corn. There are varying accounts of what the first Thanksgiving was actually like. Was it a big house party where the Pilgrims invited the Indians to come over and bring a casserole? Was it more like a meeting in a lawyer’s office, signing a treaty where each party agreed to take care of one another- out of fear more than friendship? Was it the peace and harmony that is taught in elementary schools throughout the United States?
What we do know is that turkey was served along with other “native fowl” and venison. The written accounts of this menu may be found in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation. Seeing as how Plymouth plantation was very close to the ocean, it seems they most likely ate fish as well. The harvest yielded pumpkins, squash, and corn that were made into some form of bread similar to corn bread.
As the celebration of the Thanksgiving spread throughout the country, the menu became a reflection of each table’s geographical location. In the south, sweet potatoes were most likely served as opposed to white potatoes in the north. Saltwater fish would not have been on the menu in the Midwest, but something like trout from a river may have been. Today, while most of the turkeys purchased at a grocery store were shipped from sea to shining sea before making their appearance at the dinner table, the menus at the Blue Pig Tavern and Ebbitt Room show some reverence for this local tradition.
A portion of the birds sold at the Ebbitt Room will be Beach Plum Farm Heritage Turkeys. The turkeys at the first thanksgiving were not domesticated, or farm raised, but rather they were wild. Locally raised turkey, however, is pretty darn close (pun intended). Farm manager, Ali Moussali, gives some insight into how the Broad-Breasted Bronze and Broad –Breasted White variety, are raised. “They eat locally-milled feed that is a blend of conventional corn and soybean meal, with vitamins and minerals added. They are considered "pastured," which for us means they stay in a single hoop house which we move onto fresh ground every day or twice a day. There is a ton of clover there, which they love. Turkeys graze more than chickens - between that supplemental food and the fact that they have lots of room to move around, the meat is distinctly juicier and more flavorful. I always say it's like a fresh homegrown tomato versus a grocery store tomato. You really can tell the difference.”
On November 24th, those that gather with family and friends at the Ebbitt Room or at the Blue Pig Tavern will also have the chance to choose some of the other menu items that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians ate at what has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving. At the Blue Pig, if you chose to forego the classic turkey and mashed potatoes, you may decide to feast on locally caught skate stuffed with mushrooms, greens, turnips and more. In addition to locally raised turkey, the Ebbitt Room is serving Caramelized Sea Scallop with Butternut Squash Risotto. While tradition has taught us that we should be eating turkey and mashed potatoes on the last Thursday of November, eating some sea-faring creatures would also be in line with the feast the Pilgrims enjoyed.
When it comes to the Thanksgiving Day menu, the turkey is king, and has been since the days of Plymouth Plantation. While Thanksgiving was not officially declared a national holiday until 1863, setting aside a day in November to give thanks and eat turkey was by that time a well-established occasion. Even Alexander Hamilton was not going to give up his shot to weigh in, allegedly proclaiming that “"No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” well before it was officially observed. This Thanksgiving, in Cape May and throughout homes throughout the United States, the turkey will serve as a center piece, a tradition, a reason for us to take a break from our daily lives and offer thanks for the gifts that are put in front of us every day. ✯