What We Will Be Talking about Around the Dinner Table This Thanksgiving 

Champagne and New Year’s Eve, grilling and Independence Day, candy and Halloween—food has long been tied to the celebration of holidays, but perhaps none more so than turkey and Thanksgiving. It’s hard to imagine sitting down to the dinner table on the fourth Thursday of November and not seeing the iconic dish gracing the center of the table. According to the National Turkey Federation, as many as 88% of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. The food and holiday have a unique history together; keep reading to learn some interesting facts about turkey and Thanksgiving you might not know.

Thanksgiving Dinner

The First Thanksgiving 

Although turkey is the centerpiece of today’s Thanksgiving table, it’s unlikely that it was served at the first feast. It’s thought that the Wampanoag would have brought traditional foods like lobster, seal, eel, and clams, along with deer meat. If the Wampanoag did bring a bird to the dinner table, it was probably a swan. Turkey wasn’t a common dish for the Pilgrims either, duck and goose would have been preferable to them. Turkey wasn’t linked to Thanksgiving until President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863

The reason turkey was chosen back then isn’t all that different from why we serve the dish today: turkeys are large enough to feed a table full of family members and uncommon enough that it’s a suitable choice for a special occasion. 

The Birth of a Business

While turkey was most likely not served at the first Thanksgiving feast, it has the honor of being the first food included in a TV dinner. In 1953, a Swanson employee accidentally ordered an enormous shipment of turkeys—260 tons to be exact. With a massive amount of meat left over after the Thanksgiving holiday, and inspired by the meals served on airplanes, a salesman packaged the turkey with sides such as sweet potatoes, peas, and gravy in aluminum trays covered with foil and sold them for 98 cents. Swanson sold roughly 10 million of these meals the first year.

The packaging for Swanson’s pre-made turkey dinners was designed to look like a television set, hence the name TV dinner. 

Out of This World 

Turkey was not the first food consumed in outer space, but it’s nearly as synonymous with space travel as it is with Thanksgiving. On Christmas Eve in 1968, as the crew of Apollo 8 were approaching the moon’s orbit, they were treated to a meal of real turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce—wrapped in foil and tied with red and green ribbons. Today, it’s a tradition for US astronauts to share a Thanksgiving meal with their counterparts from other countries on the International Space Station.

Bringing new meaning to “farm to table,” these meals travel 260 miles above the earth! Last year, astronauts were treated to turkey, candied yams, stuffing, and spicy pound cakes served in special ready-to-eat packets that prevent germs from traveling to space.

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Afoul of the Forefathers 

This year, as every other, we’re thankful for the beautiful birds we gobble up at Thanksgiving—Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be the USA’s national bird, writing his daughter that eagles were of “bad moral character,” while turkeys are a “much more respectable bird.” We’re equally grateful for the men and women who help bring the 46 million turkeys to our dinner tables. Happy Thanksgiving!