Here’s the truth about Turkey Day. 

Turkey and Thanksgiving go together like cranberry sauce and a can opener — you just can’t have one without the other (or you could, but it just wouldn’t be right). But why, exactly, do we eat turkey on Turkey Day? Let’s dig in: 

Did They Eat Turkey at the First Thanksgiving? 

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome
"The First Thanksgiving" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (c. 1915)
| Credit: GraphicaArtis/Contributor/Getty Images

Maybe. It’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction when it comes to events that happened centuries ago and, for that reason (among others), we don’t really know a whole lot about the 1621 harvest meal that Americans call the First Thanksgiving. Here’s what we do know about the original spread: 

More than 100 people attended. 

There were at least 90 indigenous men and 50 Pilgrims at the event, according to writings from Edward Winslow. History buffs may find Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ experience in Plymouth Colony, Mourt’s Relation (written between 1620 and 1621), an interesting read.   

There was definitely an abundance of fowl. 

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week,” Winslow wrote. 

When Winslow refers to fowl, he is likely talking about the ducks and geese that were plentiful in autumn. 

Turkey may have been on the menu. 

Could Winslow have been talking about turkey, though? Maybe! Turkey is most certainly considered fowl. Plus, wild turkeys (not domesticated ones raised for food) were common in the area. 

William Bradford wrote about the bird in On Plymouth Plantation

“All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”

It’s important to note that Bradford was referencing general life in Plymouth when he wrote the above record — he wasn’t talking specifically about the 1621 feast. 

Venison (deer) was probably the star of the show. 

“[The indigenous men] went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others,” wrote Winslow. 

Food historians speculate the venison was probably boiled, then placed on spits and roasted over coals. 

Why Do We Eat Turkey Now? 

Roasted whole turkey on a table with apple, pumpkin and figs for family Thanksgiving Holiday
Credit: Edalin/Getty Images

So, if turkey wasn’t the main dish at the original harvest celebration, why do we practically center the modern holiday around the bird? That probably has a lot to do with some really good, Don Draper-level marketing. 

The roasted turkey had become synonymous with Thanksgiving by the 1800s, according to Thanksgiving: The True Story author Penny Coleman.

“In part, according to business historian Thomas DiBacco, this was because a group of poultry producers launched a marketing campaign during the post-Civil War years to eat more turkey, especially around Thanksgiving,” Coleman writes. “Their efforts coincided with the appearance of turkeys — live and roasted — in depictions of Thanksgiving Day in paintings, magazines, newspapers, and books.”

These days, it’d be next to impossible to separate the November holiday from the loose-necked bird — it is called Turkey Day, after all.