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The centerpiece of contemporary Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada is a large meal, generally centered around a large roasted turkey. The majority of the dishes in the traditional American version of Thanksgiving dinner are made from foods native to the New World, as according to tradition the Pilgrims received these foods from the Native Americans. However, many of the classic traditions attributed to the first Thanksgiving are actually myths introduced later.
According to what traditionally is known as "The First Thanksgiving," the 1621 feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained turkey, waterfowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. William Bradford noted that, "besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many." Many of the foods that were included in that feast (except, notably, the seafood) have since gone on to become staples of the modern Thanksgiving dinner.
The use of the turkey in the USA for Thanksgiving precedes Lincoln's nationalization of the holiday in 1863. Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that no "Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day," and many of the Founding Fathers (particularly Benjamin Franklin) had high regard for the wild turkey as an American icon, but turkey was uncommon as Thanksgiving fare until after 1800. By 1857, turkey had become part of the traditional dinner in New England.
A Thanksgiving Day dinner served to the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 included: pickles, green olives, celery, roast turkey, oyster stew, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, dressing, creamed asparagus tips, snowflake potatoes, baked carrots, hot rolls, fruit salad, mince meat pie, fruit cake, candies, grapes, apples, clams, fish, and many other food harvests. French drip coffee, cigars and cigarettes.
The Whitehouse Cookbook, 1887, by Mrs. F.L. Gillette, et al., had the following menu: Oysters on Half Shell, Cream of Chicken Soup, Fried Smelts, Sauce Tartare, Roast Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes, Baked Squash, Boiled Onions, Parsnip Fritters, Olives, Chicken Salad, Venison Pastry, Pumpkin Pie, Mince Pie, Charlotte Russe, Almond Ice-cream, Lemon Jelly, Hickory Nut Cake, Cheese, Fruits, Coffee.
Turkey being the most common main dish of a Thanksgiving dinner, Thanksgiving is sometimes colloquially called “Turkey Day.” In 2006, American turkey growers were expected to raise 270 million turkeys, to be processed into five billion pounds of turkey meat valued at almost $8 billion, with one third of all turkey consumption occurring in the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, and a per capita consumption of almost 18 pounds. The Broad Breasted White turkey is particularly bred for Thanksgiving dinner and similar large feasts; its large size (specimens can grow to over 40 pounds) and meat content make it ideal for such situations, although the breed must be artificially bred and suffers from health problems due to its size.
Most Thanksgiving turkeys are stuffed with a bread-based stuffing and roasted. Sage is the traditional herb added to the stuffing (also called dressing), along with chopped celery, carrots, and onions. Deep-fried turkey is rising in popularity, requiring special fryers to hold the large bird, and reportedly leading to fires and bad burns for those who fail to take care when dealing with a large quantity of very hot oil. In more recent years it is also true that as the wild population of turkeys has rebounded in most of the US, some will hunt and dress their turkey in the woods and then freeze it until meal preparation.
Non-traditional foods other than turkey are sometimes served as the main dish for a Thanksgiving dinner. Ham is often served alongside turkey in many households. Goose and duck, foods which were traditional European centerpieces of Christmas dinners before being displaced, are now sometimes served in place of the Thanksgiving turkey. Sometimes, fowl native to the region where the meal is taking place is used; for example, an article in Texas Monthly magazine suggested quail as the main dish for a Texan Thanksgiving feast. John Madden, who appeared on television for the NFL Thanksgiving Day game every year from 1981 to 2001, frequently advertised his fondness for the turducken, which is in fact three birds (turkey, duck and chicken) nested inside each other and cooked together. In a few areas of the West Coast of the United States, Dungeness crab is common as an alternate main dish, as crab season starts in early November."Similarly, Thanksgiving falls within deer hunting season in the Northeastern United States, which encourages the use of venison as a centerpiece. Sometimes a variant recipe for cooking turkey is used; for example, a Chinese recipe for goose could be used on the similarly-sized American bird. Vegetarians or vegans may try Tofurky, a tofu-based roast; a Field Roast, which is a wheat-based product; or a special seasonal dish, such as stuffed squash. In Alaskan villages, whale meat is sometimes eaten. Irish immigrants have been known to have prime rib of beef as their centerpiece as beef was once a rarity back in Ireland; in the past, families would save up money for this as a special sign of newfound prosperity and hope.
In the United States, a new globalist approach to Thanksgiving has become popular due to the impact of massive immigration on the country. Some take the basic Thanksgiving ingredients, and reinvent them using flavors, techniques, and traditions from their own cuisines, while others celebrate the holiday with a large festive meal with or without turkey. Given the working holiday it is also common for immigrant communities in North America to participate in the holiday by launching their own celebrations of the holiday. Thus, it is not uncommon to find Chinese and other large immigrant communities celebrating Thanksgiving in the same family spirit but with the food of the feast being of their own respective cultures instead.
Many other foods are typically served alongside the main dish—so many that, because of the amount of food, the Thanksgiving meal is sometimes served midday or early afternoon to make time for all the eating, and preparation may begin at dawn or on days prior. Copious leftovers are also common following the meal proper.
Traditional Thanksgiving foods are sometimes specific to the day, and although some of the foods might be seen at any semi-formal meal in the United States, the meal often has something of a ritual or traditional quality. Many Americans would say it is "incomplete" without cranberry sauce; stuffing or dressing; and gravy. Other commonly served dishes include winter squash; sweet potatoes; mashed potatoes; dumplings; noodles; corn on the cob or hominy; deviled eggs; green beans or green bean casserole; sauerkraut (among those in the Mid-Atlantic; especially Baltimore); peas and carrots; bread rolls; cornbread (in the south and parts of New England); or biscuits, rutabagas or turnips; and a salad. For dessert, various pies are often served, particularly apple pie, mincemeat pie, sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate cream pie and pecan pie. In Québec, Tourtière is usually served alongside as a traditional staple of Quebecois cuisine.
There are also regional differences as to the stuffing or dressing traditionally served with the turkey. Southerners generally make their dressing from cornbread, while those in other parts of the country make stuffing from white, wheat or rye bread as the base. One or several of the following may be added to the dressing/stuffing: oysters, apples, chestnuts, raisins, celery and/or other vegetables, sausages or the turkey's giblets. The traditional Canadian version has bread cubes, sage, onion and celery. Rice is also sometimes used instead of bread in some parts of Canada.
Other dishes reflect the region or cultural background of those who have come together for the meal. For example, many African Americans and Southerners serve baked macaroni and cheese and collard greens, along with chitterlings and sweet potato pie, while some Italian-Americans often have lasagne on the table and Ashkenazi Jews may serve noodle kugel, a sweet dessert pudding. Other Jewish families may consume foods commonly associated with Hanukkah, such as latkes or a sufganiyah; the two holidays are usually in close proximity and on extremely rare occasions overlap. It is not unheard of for Mexican Americans to serve their turkey with mole and roasted corn. In Puerto Rico, the Thanksgiving meal is completed with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) or arroz con maiz (rice with corn), pasteles (root tamales) stuffed with turkey, pumpkin-coconut crème caramel, corn bread with longaniza, potato salad, roasted white sweet potatoes and Spanish sparkling hard cider. Turkey in Puerto Rico is stuffed with mofongo. Cuban-Americans traditionally serve the turkey alongside a small roasted pork and include white rice and black beans or kidney beans. Vegetarians or vegans have been known to serve alternative entree centerpieces such as a large vegetable pie or a stuffed and baked pumpkin or tofurkey. Many Midwesterners (such as Minnesotans) of Norwegian or Scandinavian descent set the table with lefse.
The beverages at Thanksgiving can vary as much as the side dishes, often depending on who is present at the table and their tastes. Spirits or cocktails sometimes may be served before the main meal. On the dinner table, unfermented Apple cider (still or sparkling) and/or wine are often served. Beaujolais nouveau is sometimes served, as "Beaujolais day" falls before American Thanksgiving.