In the chapter “Giving Thanks” from his book Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, Andrew Smith reveals that “the whole idea that the Pilgrims were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving in America was, in fact preposterous.”
The myth of Thanksgiving first took hold in 1841 when Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister in Boston published Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, in which he added a footnote to a description of a feast by one of the settlers in Plymouth. Young claimed that this was the first instance of Thanksgiving but in fact as Smith describes, “it was an insignificant event and the Pilgrims took no notice of it in subsequent years.”
A few years later, the popular poet and writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday even writing to Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 declared the last Thursday of November to a national day of Thanksgiving. As the century wore on the religious character of the holiday faded and food, and especially turkey became a focal point? Why turkey?
While many other main dishes had been tried, it was turkey that thrived, mainly because it was less expensive than the alternatives….The traditional side dishes—stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, succotash, corn bread, cranberries, and pies—were inexpensive as well, so that Thanksgiving dinner was affordable to all but the poorest Americans.
Thanksgiving did have its skeptics, most notably John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes. Kellogg “believed that the large meal was a tragedy in the making that could cripple digestive ‘organs completely and produce a fatal uremia.'”
However, Thanksgiving’s status in American culture was cemented with the massive influx of immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century. Thanksgiving was a story that could help Americanize immigrants and the myth was far less complicated than the settling of Jamestown or the Civil War. Smith writes:
The absurd Pilgrim fathers, with their floppy hats and mythical blunderbusses, and the newly invented first Thanksgiving dinner at which colonists and Indians feasted together, were ideal elements for the story of America’s beginning. The tale gave legitimacy to the colonists’ settlement of the land and suggested friendly relations with the Native Americans. Few educators and textbook publishers could resist the temptation to use these attractive images.