The 'Harvest Feast' and the noble turkey

November 22, 2005|by JEFF SEMLER

Imagine, if you can, that you have just walked into a courthouse. The judge is sitting on the bench, flanked by the U.S. flag and the state flag. On top of the state flag is a cross, due to Maryland owing its heritage to its Catholic founding fathers, the Calvert Family, and atop the U.S. flag is perched a tom turkey, complete with tail in full fan. Taken aback, you look above the justice and you see a turkey clutching arrows in one foot and an olive branch in the other. "Strange," you may think.

Well, if Benjamin Franklin would have had his way that is exactly what you would have seen. Old Ben was no fan of the Bald Eagle, but was the promoter of what we know as the Eastern Wild Turkey. He went so far as to say the following, "I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country: he is a bird of bad moral character. Like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor and very often lousy. The Turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of North America."


Instead, the turkey has become the centerpiece of this Thursday's Thanksgiving meal. While there is no hard evidence the Pilgrims even ate turkey during that first Thanksgiving meal, it is not too much of a stretch. The Pilgrims would have been very familiar with turkey, since it had been eaten in Europe since the late 1500s.

You might be saying, "I thought turkeys were native to the Americas." You are right, but what you failed to realize was the Spanish Conquistadors took more than gold back to Spain. So popular did the bird become that a turkey recipe was discovered in an old English cookbook, The Good Huswife's Jewell, published in 1596.

However, it was also very likely the Pilgrims feasted on lobster, cod and oysters, as well as duck, goose and venison. Corn most assuredly would have been a side, since it was the Native Americans that taught their new English neighbors how to grow it. Of course, back then it was called maize. The word corn actually means the "major grain crop" and, to these early settlers, as well as many British today, corn is actually what we call barley.

But I digress, what we celebrate today is not really Thanksgiving at all. What we repeat today is the "Harvest Feast." This first celebration, in fact, the colonists wouldn't even have called Thanksgiving. To them, a day of thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, no type of recreational activities would have been included.

The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11. Unlike our modern holiday, it was three days long. The event was based on English harvest festivals, which traditionally occurred around the 29th of September. After that first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. In 1623, a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. Gradually, the custom prevailed in New England of annually celebrating thanksgiving after the harvest.

During the American Revolution, a yearly day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817, New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom and, by the middle of the 19th century, many other states had done the same. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have correlated with the Nov. 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Today, we celebrate on the last Thursday of November.

To aid in this celebration, American farmers raise more than 300 million turkeys each year. The average American consumes 18 pounds of turkey annually and that number is growing, as turkey and its products are being eaten more often than just at holidays. That aside, America stands second in turkey consumption to Israel, where the average Israeli eats 28 pounds annually.

Now you know a little more about Thanksgiving and its turkey, so this Thursday I hope you will remember and celebrate a day that is uniquely American, one where we give thanks for friends and family and for God and country. In a nation so rich and spoiled, I hope you will join with friends and loved ones and - like the Pilgrims of old Plymouth - rejoice, feast, entertain and give thanks. I know I will.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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