17 Thanksgiving Myths, Debunked
What better way to start conversation during Thanksgiving dinner than by debunking some of these common Turkey Day myths?
1. Myth: Abraham Lincoln pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey.
Some credit Lincoln with the first ever presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardon, but that’s the wrong holiday. In 1863, the Lincoln family received the bird as a gift meant to be cooked for Christmas dinner. But Tad Lincoln, 10 years old at the time, grew fond of the turkey, which he named Jack. Shortly before Jack was to be killed, Tad learned of the turkey’s impending fate. He successfully pleaded for a stay from the turkey executioner and then ran into one of his father’s cabinet meetings, crying, “He’s a good turkey and I don’t want him killed.” So Lincoln “pardoned” the bird. (Fun fact: The next year, during the election of 1864, a special polling place was set up on the White House grounds for soldiers who wanted to vote. Jack the turkey strutted into the line of waiting soldiers, leading the elder Lincoln to ask his son whether the turkey would vote. Tad replied: “He is under age.”)
2. Myth: Harry S. Truman started the tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey.
In 1947, Truman did receive one from the National Turkey Federation, but he most likely ate it. From then on, presidents received turkeys for the holiday. As for who pardoned the first: It’s complicated. John F. Kennedy didn’t eat his, but he didn’t call this “pardoning,” though the press did. Nixon sent at least some of his turkeys to petting farms. Reagan jokingly used the word pardon. And it was President George H. W. Bush who officially said, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy—he’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”
3. Myth: Tryptophan is what makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner.
We’ve all heard relatives blame their post-Thanksgiving-dinner sleepiness on tryptophan. But that’s not quite fair. It’s true that turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan. And it’s true that the human body can use tryptophan to make serotonin, which helps us sleep. But turkey contains lots of amino acids that the body works hard to get to the brain for various purposes. There’s less tryptophan than those other amino acids; the amount of tryptophan that actually makes it to the brain to create serotonin could best be described as ... poultry. (Not sorry!) Plus, turkey has less tryptophan than other foods like cheese and nuts. Thanksgiving grogginess is probably just due to overeating, and drinking if that’s your thing.
4. Myth: Washing a turkey before cooking it kills bacteria.
Some believe you need to rinse a turkey before cooking it to kill bacteria, but the USDA actually recommends against it. When you wash raw poultry, you risk kitchen contamination. Just cook your bird to 165°F (about 74°C) to eliminate scary bacteria.
5. Myth: Pop-Up thermometers pop when the turkey is cooked.
In fact, many of these thermometers are designed to pop up when the turkey has reached around 180-185°F—in other words: overcooked! And Consumer Reports tested pop-up timers and found that some popped when the meat was still severely undercooked. Experts recommend you use a regular probe thermometer instead. By the way, according to the USDA website, while checking the temperature of a cooking turkey, it’s important to monitor “the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the thickest part of the breast.”
6. Myth: Turducken is a new dish.
Turducken is not a new dish, though it was only really popularized around the turn of the 21st century, when announcer John Madden was known to rhapsodize about it during Thanksgiving NFL games. There are recipes going back to at least 1774 containing multiple birds within each other. In 1807, a recipe called “roast without equal” emerged that called for 17 birds: sky-lark, thrush, quail, ortolan, lapwing, golden plover, partridge, woodcock, teal, guinea-hen, guinea fowl, wild duck, fowl, red pheasant, wild goose, bustard, and fig pecker.
The creator of the turducken, specifically, is up for debate, but many trace its roots to Louisiana or to Louisiana-based chef Paul Prudhomme, who claimed to invent the dish while in a Wyoming lodge. Fun fact: According to Men’s Health, a typical Turducken contains more than 12,000 calories. A regular turkey clocks in at around 2400.
7. Myth: Stuffing is cooked inside the turkey and dressing is cooked in a dish.
While there are some who subscribe to that distinction, geography generally plays a bigger role in deciding which term is used. Dressing is more common in the southern United States, whether cooked inside the bird or not, while stuffing is more common up north.
8. Myth: Canned pumpkin puree isn't actually pumpkin.
There was a rumor going around in 2016 that canned pumpkin puree was actually a puree of—gasp—squash! But this one is kind of complicated. The company Libby’s makes about 85 percent of the pumpkin puree sold worldwide and they use Dickinson pumpkins in their recipes. And if you want to sell a food and call it "pumpkin" in the U.S., the FDA allows food prepared from any of the following to apply: "golden-fleshed, sweet squash, or mixtures of such squash and field pumpkin." Field pumpkin is what most of us picture when we think of a pumpkin—it's round and orange and ready to be carved. Dickinson pumpkins aren't so pretty; they're tan with less defined ridges. As for whether they can be considered pumpkins, experts disagree. Some say they're pumpkins, some say they're squash, some say it doesn't matter because it's all squash anyway!
9. Myth: There was popcorn at the first Thanksgiving.
It’s a misconception that there was popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. We can trace this myth back to the 1889 novel Standish of Standish by Jane G. Austin—not to be confused with the other Jane Austen. During the 1620s, the type of corn that grew in Plymouth was Northern Flint corn, which doesn’t have the strong kernels that are ideal for popping.
10. Myth: The 1621 celebration was a Thanksgiving.
We call it “Thanksgiving” but ... it probably wasn’t that. Pilgrims did celebrate “thanksgiving days” after fortunate events, but those were usually religious days. They’d go to church and give thanks to God, which is not what the Wampanoag people and Pilgrims did during their 1621 celebration, as far as we know. To be clear, what we do know is limited. It mostly comes from one letter written by Edward Winslow. In 1841, his letter was published in Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers by Boston writer and publisher Alexander Young. Young called the occasion the “First Thanksgiving,” even though there’s no mention of “thanksgiving” in the original text.
11. Myth: The "Thanksgiving" celebration was the first Thanksgiving.
Even if it had been a thanksgiving, it wouldn’t have been the first one in North America. First of all, many Native American tribes also held ceremonies in which the purpose was to give thanks. And many other European settlers did, too. In 1565, a group of Spaniards invited the Timucua tribe to their thanksgiving in Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1598, another group of Spaniards held a thanksgiving celebration on the Rio Grande. And in 1619, another thanksgiving took place near Jamestown.
So the 1621 festival was not the reverential day (or three days) some picture. It was more like a harvest festival. About 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag people got together and partied. In addition to a lot of eating, they likely had games, races, and mark shooting. The Pilgrims were known to brew beer, so there may have been some imbibing as well.
12. Myth: The Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to the celebration out of thanks.
We say that the Pilgrims invited Native Americans to the festival out of gratitude for helping them with the harvest because it makes for a nice story, but there’s no way to confirm that it’s true. Edward Winslow’s letter simply says there were “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”
13. Myth: The Pilgrims fled to American to escape religious persecution.
The Pilgrims are famous for their religious lifestyle. But they didn’t come to America to escape religious persecution like some claim. In fact, they had already done that when they left England and moved to Leiden, Holland during the early 17th century. They then decided to leave Holland where they had religious freedom, but were having trouble making ends meet. Some also feared losing their English identity among the Dutch.
14. Myth: The Pilgrims wore hats and shoes with buckles at Thanksgiving.
And by the way, Pilgrims didn’t wear black and white or buckled hats and shoes at the meal. Black and gray were reserved for Sundays, but considering this Thanksgiving wasn’t a religious day, they likely wore their regular clothes, which could be red, green, brown, blue, or a number of other colors. Plain leather was used for shoe laces and belts because it was cheaper and more fashionable than buckles.
15. Myth: The day after Thanksgiving called Black Friday because business get "back in the black" thanks to all the shopping done that day.
It’s a myth that the day after Thanksgiving is named for being the day that businesses get “back in the black” after being financially in the red. In fact, the most popular explanation for the name says that police in Philadelphia began calling it “Black Friday” in the 1950s because many local stores held sales for the crowds in town for the Army-Navy football game. The police hated this chaotic day that involved working overtime, so they used the color “black” to mean “bad.” It was a way of expressing distaste for this day that made things difficult for them. Within about a decade, the whole city was aware of the nickname. It became a well known term all over the U.S. around the mid- to late-1980s.
16. Myth: It's always been the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It’s a misconception that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was always a celebration in honor of Thanksgiving. Originally, it was the Macy’s Christmas Parade. And actually, you could say that the first parade in 1924 was really honoring Macy’s, itself, as much as anything else. The parade commemorated the flagship store’s expansion into what was then considered the world’s largest department store under one roof. It took place on Thanksgiving day, but it focused on reaching the store’s Christmas window display titled “The Fairyfolk Frolics of Wondertown.” Over the next few years it would be identified by different names—the Thanksgiving Parade, the Christmas Parade or even the Annual Show—but by the 1930s it was solidly the Thanksgiving Day Parade
17. Myth: Thanksgiving is an exclusively American holiday.
Finally, it’s not true that Thanksgiving is an exclusively American holiday. There are comparable celebrations around the world. Canadian Thanksgiving is very similar to the American one, but it ostensibly traces its history back to explorer Martin Frobisher, who landed in Canada and held a thanksgiving in 1578. Though we could probably make a list of myths about Canadian Thanksgiving, too. As historian Peter Stevens notes, “there is no evidence that connects the modern Canadian Thanksgiving to Frobisher’s sixteenth-century celebration.”
Some places celebrate versions of Thanksgiving because of historical connections with America. Grenada, Australia’s Norfolk Island, and Leiden, Holland all fit that bill. And there are other holidays which share certain aspects of American Thanksgiving. Germany has Erntedankfest, a similar harvest festival of thanks. And Japan has a holiday which evolved from a harvest festival and now celebrates worker’s rights. Its name, Kinro Kansha no Hi, can be translated to “Labor Thanksgiving.”