Talking Turkey: Fun Facts About the Thanksgiving Feast

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There have been lots of changes since Pilgrim days. Among them: “Traditional” foods unknown in 1621, entertainment our ancestors couldn't have imagined and free shipping on Gray Thursday.

Thanksgiving as a national holiday has been around since Abraham Lincoln decreed it in 1863. Other T-day traditions came later: televised football games,  commercial turkey farms, the invention of the two love-’em-or-hate-’em casseroles (green bean, sweet potato).

Not much is known about the first Thanksgiving, a three-day feast with almost twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims. Those Wampanoag Indians were considerate guests who brought along five deer to cook. (Remember that the next time you want to cop out with chips and dip at a potluck.)

The dinner took place over a three-day period in October 1621 and may not actually have included turkey, according to National Geographic. Those “wild fowl” might just as easily have been ducks or geese.

Back then you’d go into the woods to put drumsticks on your table. Overhunting and habitat destruction had sent wild turkey populations into a tailspin by the early 1900s. Restoration efforts got serious in the 1950s; today, an estimated 7 million feral gobblers live in 49 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces and certain areas in Mexico.

Mind you, they don’t always stay in the woods. Undomesticated toms and hens are regularly blamed for car and even tour-bus accidents. Recently the Associated Press reported that a giant flock o’ fowls is causing major headaches on Staten Island: destroying ornamental plantings, pooping prodigiously, and waking up the neighbors with their shameless (and loud!) public matings.

Here’s Money Talks founder Stacy Johnson with some fun Thanksgiving facts on video. Check it out, then read on.

What goes with turkey?

These days most people get their birds from the store. Commercial turkey farmers sell us 47 million turkeys every Thanksgiving (to say nothing of the gobblers that go for ground turkey or turkey hot dogs, lunch meat and bacon). Recently the Butterball company reported a shortage of larger birds, i.e., those weighing 16 pounds or more.

Since the rubric is a pound and a half of turkey per person (if you want leftovers), even a 16-pounder should see you through.

That is, unless your guest list is really long, in which case you might have to cook two birds. Or one turkey and one ham, but expect the former to go faster: 88 percent of U.S. residents eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

Cranberry sauce is the go-to side dish, of course. The United States produces 760 million pounds of the little red devils every year, although some are reserved for juice, dietary supplements, baked goods and Craisins.

Our farmers also grow 2.6 billion pounds of sweet potatoes annually. Some cooks prefer candied sweets, a dish first found in print in 1896. Others, alas, drown them in marshmallows, a recipe invented in 1917 by a company eager to introduce its mass-produced marshmallows to home cooks.

(It worked: Up to 35 percent of sales for the two major U.S. marshmallow companies take place in the fourth quarter of the year.)

Another invention that Abe Lincoln could never have foreseen: green bean casserole. Dorcas Reilly of the Campbell Soup Company’s home-ec department dreamed up the idea in 1955 based on two ingredients many Americans tended to have on hand: canned green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup.

(The original copy of the recipe now resides in the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2002, where it keeps company with items like Enrico Fermi’s first controlled nuclear reactor and Thomas Alva Edison’s light bulb and phonograph. The mind boggles.)

Flushing, sleeping and shopping

Honest Abe didn’t have to deal with Thanksgiving’s effect on indoor plumbing, either – he had a staff for that sort of thing. You probably don’t. All that cooking means a lot of cleanup, and the extra laundry and showers needed for weekend guests can push a fragile system over the edge. This article on Money Talks News explains why, and offers tips to keep from having to pay a plumber overtime.

Myth-busting time: Turkey does not contain enough tryptophan to knock you out. According to the Mayo Clinic, the post-meal “turkey coma” is an urban legend: “The amount of tryptophan in turkey is not enough to have a noticeable effect on sleep patterns. The drowsiness is more to do with the large amount of food that has been eaten.”

Some prefer to succumb to that drowsiness in front of a football game. Others go to a movie. This year’s Thanksgiving movies (actually opening on Wednesday) include movies for the family (“Frozen,” “Black Nativity”), for action fans (“Homefront”) and for conspiracy theorists (“Oldboy”).

Or go shopping: At least 25 percent of Black Friday shoppers are expected to have looked for bargains on Thanksgiving, aka “Gray Thursday.” Last year, 35 million of us shopped – in person or online – on the fourth Thursday in November.

Another crass example of “Christmas creep”? There’s actually historical precedent: In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt decreed Thanksgiving should be on the third Thursday of November, to give retailers more time to sell. (This lasted only until 1941; in December of that year, Congress passed a law reinstating the fourth-Thursday celebration.)

Some people strenuously resist Gray Thursday. They prefer to party like the Pilgrims, by feasting and visiting with family and/or friends. Not that the Pilgrims watched football or worried about clogged drains – and they got to eat for three days straight.

These days we’re limited to a single day of overeating. On the other hand, those Pilgrims didn’t have the option of sipping a little bit of Wild Turkey afterwards.

Will you watch football or go shopping on Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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