Talking Turkey: A Brief History of Thanksgiving

Talking Turkey: A Brief History of Thanksgiving

Today, we celebrate gratitude. This trendy perspective may have taken over yoga studios and self-help TED talks in the past decade – but historically, it points to something larger. On the first Thanksgiving, American ancestors were celebrating the harvest, their own survival, and peace among warring factions. Today, we may celebrate the success of the restaurant industry, the health of our families, or just the history of the holiday itself. What are you most thankful for this year?

In honor of our predecessors, today’s blog will look back on the culinary traditions that got us here. Ever since colonial times, Americans have loved to eat – although their tastes have changed considerably over the centuries. We give thanks for those early hunters, chefs, and diners who paved the way for the thriving restaurant industry we have now.


Bird is the Word

There’s a reason we call it Turkey Day. This delicious, eye-catching dish is more than iconic; it’s become synonymous with the holiday. However, the huge, juicy birds served as centerpieces in present-day American homes weren’t always so impressive.

According to Megan Gambino, writing for the Smithsonian, “Turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal.” More likely, the colonists would have boiled and roasted some combination of goose, duck, swan, and passenger pigeons. These smaller wildfowl would have been easy to hunt – according to some sources, pigeons were so thick over North America that a single man with a rifle could easily bring down 200 birds from one flock. These birds may have been stuffed, but certainly not with breadcrumbs. The settlers would instead have used onions, herbs, or even chestnuts.

One thing has remained the same over time: the sheer amount of food. At the first Thanksgiving in 1621, a participant wrote that four men in his company “in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.” It may not be the single impressive bird we’re used to today, but this still sounds like a staggering amount of food. How many pigeons does it take to feed an army?


No Rest for the Restaurants

Traditionally, Thanksgiving is a day many Americans spend at home with their families. In years past – think the 1950’s – housewives might even have been ashamed to eat at a restaurant on this particular holiday. But times have changed. Many now celebrate the holiday by eating out, or even volunteering out. Some restaurants make it possible for guests to do both at the same time, offering pay-what-you-can Thanksgiving dinners to loyal customers and those in need.

As home cooking becomes more of a chore and less a point of pride for dual-income families, restaurants have an opportunity to step in and save the day. Whether or not you choose to remain open on Thanksgiving Day, there are a number of ways to capture the loyalty of your guests over this holiday season. From meal prep leading up to the holiday, to special Black Friday deals for hungry shoppers, the possibilities are endless. Whatever you do this year, make sure you’re answering this essential question: How will you show your customers you’re thankful for their business?

Wherever you are this holiday season – at home with your family, running a busy restaurant, or shopping for your winter menu – we wish you a wonderful holiday. Happy Thanksgiving, from everyone at CAKE.

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