Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Turkey of a Thanksgiving

The following is a humorous piece I wrote two years ago, but which has never been published . . . so I publish it here for your enjoyment (or anguish).

Thanksgiving: A History


The American Thanksgiving hearkens back to this year, when the colonists at the Plymouth Plantation ate a feast with the Wampanoag Indians—who brought yams and diet sodas. Later that afternoon, the first “football” game was played on the lawn, with the Indians pounding the colonists by a final score of 18-0 (this was before the innovation of “extra points”).

By tradition, this first Thanksgiving meal was a whopper, and several of the colonists complained of bloating and gas, including one woman who later died of diarrhea due to eating too much corn on the cob. However, there are many traditions and ideas surrounding this first Thanksgiving that are simply old wives’ tales: including the notion that Governor William Bradford had a thing for Squanto and that turkeys were sacrificed in some sort of bizarre ritual that featured a powder horn and five musket balls.

Historians have ascertained, however, that many of our most sacred traditions are true. There was turkey at this feast and a large green bean casserole shared by all. It is also true that the women made pumpkin pies and later, the men watched the women folk clear the table and did made snide comments about the Indians.

Of course, we really don’t know where this plantation was located, exactly, nor what it looked like, and some of these colonists were no doubt very homely. But we can thank these colonists for giving us the first doggie bags, and it was Myles Standish who later coined the word “leftovers.”


Nearly 250 years later, President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation that a “National Day of Thanksgiving would be observed.” However, Lincoln picked the wrong day, and set Thanksgiving on October 3, which really screwed up the football schedule. A few teams had not even practiced yet and, what with the war and all, some players never made it to training camp.

Lincoln did have good intentions, and a few people followed his advice and cooked hams. One woman in Boston sent him a cream pie.

Historians have since come to the conclusion that Lincoln was actually giving thanks that he was able to send Ulysses S. Grant to the front and be shed of his rancid cigar smoke. And William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, wrote in his diary that Lincoln had gone “off his nut” and was reducing the country to little more than a nation of “tater-lovers.”

Fortunately for us all, Lincoln stuck to his guns and didn’t listen to his cabinet, which was then staffed with southern sympathizers and several underweight advisers who couldn’t eat a chicken liver without getting sick. Mary Todd also baked a pecan pie for the occasion and word has it that Lincoln himself gained three pounds and ate his weight in cranberry sauce.

Later that night, the first lady had a premonition and pleaded with Lincoln not to have second helpings. Seward noted in his diary, however, that Lincoln frequently disregarded his wife’s visions and ate radishes. But the old lawyer from Illinois had grown up on venison and wanted a good excuse to bring meat into the White House.

Lincoln’s final prayer was that “everyone would enjoy the meal and get a little exercise the following day.”


It’s a little-known fact that the current date for our American Thanksgiving—the fourth Thursday of November—was not fixed until President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his decree on December 26th, 1941. Roosevelt, an avid football fan, understood the implications and wanted to do something with radio. He considered the fourth Thursday an optimal choice for the whole nation—given that many businesses would close down on Friday, too, thereby creating the first “four day weekend”—but a few of his political adversaries considered his mandate presumptuous and opportunistic.

Roosevelt, of course, loved to eat, and Eleanor was known for her apple pie and hot rolls—which were also the pet names that Roosevelt used in the bedroom. White House staff at the time also make mention of overhearing the terms “hot beans and rice”, “savory goose” and “sweet juicy plumbs” emanating from the walls of the Rose bedroom.

In essence, our modern day Thanksgiving traditions were established at this time, and we have FDR to thank. Without a fixed date on the calendar, Thanksgiving would have become a wild assortment of varying traditions and times, with some Americans observing the day on April 19 and others on October 3 or even December 30, when it would be too cold to cut the pie.

Likewise, our American Thanksgiving traditions might have remained back there in Plymouth, and we would have been stuck eating partridge and swan, which those first Pilgrims likely consumed by the gross. No one would be eating the right foods, and it is likely that the TV remote would never have been invented.


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