Passenger Pigeon for Thanksgiving? Perhaps Not.

Submitted by Art & Barb Straub

Traditionally, Thanksgiving fare is pictured as Wampanoag indigenous people and Plymouth colonists sitting down at a table for a three-day harvest festival meal composed of pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and of course, turkey. Research by many, including Megan Gambino of Smithsonian Magazine seems to indicate otherwise. For example, passenger pigeons clouded the sky in those days, so many that one could easily kill them at night with a club…that’s one reason they became extinct. Thus, why not pigeon for the feast? Venison, geese, ducks, swans…all were plentiful. In addition, eels, lobster, other sea food was close at hand. How many of the above are mentioned by researchers? This Thanksgiving week would be a great time to read some of the accounts of various historians regarding the menu of the first Thanksgiving meal.

Could one cook a pumpkin pie without butter, flour or an oven? Cranberries? Historians say, “No cranberries as we know the dish.” What is Thanksgiving dinner without cranberries? Pilgrims’ harvest had been good. Corn was grown by the Native Americans and Puritans, but surely not the quality as that of today. Corn was ground into meal; corn porridge was common fare. We forgot to mention ‘mashed potatoes’ at that special celebration. A clear statement made by many researchers is: “Potatoes had no place at the early Thanksgiving feasts!”

Most researchers say that wild turkey was on the menu, but not the species we are accustomed to, rather, small tough birds from the forest. Historian accounts indicate that wild turkeys captured in Mexico much earlier than 1621, were taken back to Spain, domesticated, and eventually came back to America. By selective breeding, they became the breastbone of our modern turkeys, about ten different kinds grown today, the vast majority being broad-breasted whites. Why white? ‘Pinfeathers’ are noticed less by the consumer of white turkeys. Today, frequent Independent contributor Vern Bienfang grows a number of beautifully colored species of domesticated turkeys including the white. (See photo.)

Personally, we have a number of domesticated and wild turkey stories. Years and years ago, this writer brought home the first Thanksgiving turkey to be enjoyed by our family whose usual fare was duck, goose and chicken. Noses were turned up, as the bird was tough and dry! Today’s turkey roasting methods make the difference. A dream on our bucket list was to raise turkeys, thus upon a spring, fifty cute wee birds were purchased. We are told that domesticated turkeys are dumb, but perhaps it was this dumb turkey raiser. Twenty-five poults smothered early-on, some of the remainder chose to go swimming in deep water without life-preservers. Others stayed outside in a hail storm, some chose assorted methods of suicide.

Finally, twelve birds remained. It was their habit each day to walk from our farm down the highway ditch… a quarter mile along Highway #169… devouring insects, especially grasshoppers. On a day, a brother walked into our domicile, and asked, “Why is (name shall remain anonymous) butchering turkeys in the Hwy #169 ditch?” Seems a passerby saw turkeys next to the highway, assumed they were wild, and began shooting them. (White wild turkeys?) Finally, when the birds’ numbers reached three, (remember, out of fifty to begin with?) they had become grumpy even dangerous pets, as they began chasing and gauging family children with their spurs. (That did not build positive relationships with relatives.). Those dumb turkeys were VERY intelligent, knowing whom to chase. It became a bloody game of hide-and-seek. End of that turkey tail. (Yes, tail, not tale.)

When wild turkeys were introduced into Minnesota, they multiplied quickly and were so highly sought after, that a “season” was placed on their wattles. Upon dispatching a Tom, the highly prized gobbler was frozen for three months, then bird was brought forth for the Thanksgiving feast. Dry, tough, with sinewy thighs! Ugh! Even the breast meat was shunned. Few family members hunt them any longer, and if so, turn the birds into turkey-lurkey-jerky. For some, the joy of hunting turkeys today is being present in a spring woodland while nature bursts forth into new life. Pursuit and taking photos, but not necessarily dispatching birds, is the new game.

Thanksgiving 2021 will be ‘different’ this year. Empty chairs will remind us of the plague upon the land. In many homes, wearing masks, washing of hands, conversations will take a different twist. Perhaps it may be a good time to reflect on the true meaning of the celebration. May your festive occasion be ‘fulfilling,’ not simply FULL-filling!