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Good Question: Why Do We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - Almost 90 percent of Americans will eat turkey for Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. The average turkey will weigh 16 pounds.

Many of us learned this turkey tradition in school when we were taught about the feast in 1621 between the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoug Indians. But it turns out, most historians think the story is more fiction than fact.

"I'm sorry to report that the first Thanksgiving is a wonderful myth," said food historian Andrew Smith, author of "The Turkey: An American Story."

He says a feast did happen, but it's more likely they ate deer or fowl. That gathering also wasn't considered Thanksgiving.

"The Puritans and the pilgrims did celebrate Thanksgiving, but they were religious and would have spent that day in church," he said. "The first Thanksgiving dinners that we have records of are in late 18th century."

Though Thanksgiving didn't become a national holiday until the Civil War, people did start celebrating the holiday a century earlier in New England. Turkeys' popularity had to do with availability, cost and a carryover tradition from England.

"It was readily available in New England and wild turkeys, unlike domesticated turkeys at the time, would weigh up to 60 pounds," Smith said. "So, if you're inviting a lot of friends and family over, it's one of the most economical things to serve."

Turkeys were already popular in England. In fact, in the 16th century, many English people were already serving turkey at Christmas.  Domesticated turkeys made their way there from Spain via Mexico.

Smith said as more immigrants came to the U.S., they would add their own side dishes, like rice, but the centerpiece of the bird would stay the same.  Historically, side dishes would also change from region to region with sweet potatoes being more common in the South and white potatoes more common in the North.

After the Civil War, Smith said the turkey and Thanksgiving were introduced into the school curriculum and, by the early 20th century, magazines show turkeys as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner.

"It's a wonderful part of American culture," he said.

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