True-ish facts about Thanksgiving

The holiday is about more than footballs, turkeys, and pie
Oh, pardon me: Not everyone is eager to be part of a Thanksgiving celebration. Photo: Elljay

Let’s just get to the most important news right away: If, for any reason, you have a turkey emergency this Thanksgiving, Butterball has more than 50 experts on call to help you through your cooking crisis. The Butterball Turkey Talk Line is available at — I’ll wait while you get a pen and paper — 800-877-3456.

Now on to less dramatic but more interesting holiday news.

This year, San Franciscans will gather for Thanksgiving meals everywhere from the Fairmont hotel to the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center. Houses and condos and apartments and those weird shared micro apartments will be filled with the smell of roasting fowl or the Impossible version thereof.

Three different NFL games will be played throughout the day, though none of them will feature a California team. Therefore everyone at your holiday gathering will be looking for something else to amuse them until they’re ready for pie, so why not entertain them with interesting facts about Thanksgiving?


In October 1621, 90 Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe gathered together with 53 European immigrants to celebrate survival through a harsh year. The feast was a decidedly nonvegan affair that included deer, fowl, and corn.

This combination of peoples was important, because a Native American named Squanto had helped the Pilgrims catch and grow food. Though the English and the  Wampanoag would later fight a vicious war that included kidnappings, mass murders, and much destruction — including a head on a stick — the beginning of the relationship was at least hopeful.

That is generally cited as the first American Thanksgiving, but another story has some Virginia settlers celebrating one in 1619. The Washingtonian reports that they had to settle for a gluten-free meal of oysters and ham. But that probably didn’t bother them much; first, they were English and weren’t used to good food; second, Thanksgiving was primarily about prayer and, well, giving thanks, rather than stuffing oneself with deep-fried turducken.

Whichever date you use as your “first” turkey day, it should be noted that it did not become a regular occurrence for a long time. More than 150 years after those initial gatherings, the country’s first president, George Washington, proclaimed a Thanksgiving to take place on Sept. 24, 1789. He did so again in 1795. His successor John Adams did so a couple times, but the third occupant of the White House, Thomas Jefferson, refused to do so because he was skeptical of the idea of deities intervening in the country’s life.

The creation of Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday, however, would wait until President Abraham Lincoln decided it should take place in late November, beginning in 1863.

Lincoln was persuaded by Sarah Josepha Hale. Thanks to her parents’ belief that girls deserved to be educated just as well as boys, she was well educated and grew up to be an accomplished writer and editor. She had begun to push for a national holiday back in 1846, but Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan all failed her; only when Lincoln took up the cause did she finally get her national holiday.

True fact: Hale is also the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which might be why we don’t roast lambs on this holiday.


Now, we’re not the only country to celebrate Thanksgiving. It turns out that Canadians, Liberians, Germans, Australians, British, Indians, Japanese, and others also celebrate it. However, they generally aren’t all that worked up about celebrating a band of Pilgrims on America’s East Coast; they do so for their own reasons, though most of them seem to be days of marking successful harvests.

Our modern Thanksgivings are typically a feast of turkeys (stuffed or not stuffed with ducks and chickens), cranberries, bread stuffing, potatoes, and pie. Bon Appetit’s website also lists 65 vegetarian recipes for the holiday, ranging from mashed potatoes with “crispety chuncheties” to butternut squash steaks with brown butter-sage sauce. So whether you’re a meat eater, vegetarian, or vegan, there are lots of food options out there, which makes it only more curious that so many millions of Americans stick to the relatively unimaginative turkeys, cranberries, etc. None of that was in either version of the original Thanksgiving.

In 1999, a new food was introduced into the Thanksgiving canon. It includes a layer of ladyfingers, jam, custard, raspberries, more ladyfingers, beef sauteed with peas and onions, bananas and whipped cream. That’s an entire meal in one dish! OK, so it was invented by a woman named Rachel Green in a Thanksgiving episode of Friends when two pages of her cookbook got stuck together. But it’s time Americans started innovating away from the same-old, same-old of turkey and the fixin’s.


Thanksgiving is still a month away at the time this article is being written. The holiday coming up first will be Halloween, so forgive me for wanting to cover some of the scary and dangerous things that can happen during Thanksgiving.

NBC News reports that nearly 3,000 homes have fires on Thanksgiving, making it the worst day of the year for such occurrences. So be careful! Remember: the deep-frying turkeys trend is over, so don’t be the last person to die in that war, as John Kerry might have told us.

People also have lots of questions about what they can feed their dogs and cats. There’s a lot of food on the typical turkey-day menu that animals can eat, but beware that much of it is very fatty and packed with calories. If you have any questions about a specific food and your pet, check with your vet. Your dog won’t stop loving you just because you refuse her sad eyes while you put the leftovers into the refrigerator. One thing you definitely should never do is give your dog turkey or chicken bones to chew on; these can splinter in their mouths or digestive tracts.

If you’re a worry wart and the above facts haven’t given you enough satisfying worries, then you can wonder about food poisoning. How long has that food been sitting out on the table before it ended up on your plate?


Enough with the worries.

Back to the Butterball hotline: Reader’s Digest informs us that a woman in Colorado called the Butterball Turkey Talk Line with a problem that we won’t have to worry about here in San Francisco. She wanted to know how to thaw her frozen turkey. It seems she had stored her bird in a snow bank outside her home. It snowed overnight, and the woman realized she had no idea which snow bank was the one with her turkey.

Bon appetit!

Email: [email protected]

Send to a Friend Print