Are you ready for some turkey and football?

November 23, 2010|By JEFF SEMLER | Special to the Herald-Mail

HAGERSTOWN — In two days, families will gather around tables full of food to celebrate the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. The word holiday originates from the words holy day. What we think of as the "first" Thanksgiving was certainly a feast day, but it bore little resemblance to today's revelry and not just because they didn't play football.

First, a day of thanksgiving in Colonial Massachusetts would have consisted of fasting and prayer so we know the "first Thanksgiving" was really a harvest festival. Second, the menu would have been very different and third it was most likely held in October, a far more pleasant month weather-wise than late November.

It wasn't until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held the final Thursday of each November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt's plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941, the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

As for the menu, much of what we eat today was not on the table for the Pilgrims and their guests. Records from the Massachusetts Bay Colony do not give us the menu for the day, but do give us some hints. Gov. Bradford sent a team of men to go fowling, hunting birds, most likely ducks and geese and maybe turkeys. The Wampanoag guest brought five deer as well.

It is likely that seafood such as lobster and shell fish were on the menu as well as cranberries, corn, beans and squash. White potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing and pies are more recent additions to the day's festivities.

Today, the centerpiece of the day is turkey. It might come as a surprise to many but turkey was not foreign to the early settlers. The Spanish had taken turkeys from Mexico and Texas back to the Old World and by the time of the Pilgrims arrival in 1620, turkeys had been raised domestically in Europe for more than 100 years.

Farmers in Minnesota raise more turkeys than any other state along with North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri and California accounting for two-thirds of the turkeys raised in the United States. According to recent surveys, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving with the average turkey size being 15 pounds. More than 700 million pounds of turkey will be consumed on Thanksgiving Day alone.

The most popular side dish for the day is sweet potatoes. North Carolina is the top producer of this root crop, growing 840 million pounds annually.

I know that when I bow my head in thanks on Thursday I will remember our bounty, prosperity and liberty. I will enjoy my meal and thank our troops that protect our freedoms daily.

This year, I trust you are thankful, too, and you will express it with your family and friends. We might be experiencing an economic bump in the road, but we are still the most prosperous nation on earth. We enjoy the world's safest and most plentiful food supply by farmers that rank second to none. Wishing you enjoyable turkey and football.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland 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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