Reason Podcast

The Secret Meaning of Thanksgiving Dinner

Food historian Rachel Laudan explains why we eat what we eat on "turkey day" - and it has nothing to do with the Pilgrims.


Did you ever wonder why we eat turkey, of all things, on Thanksgiving? After all, the Pilgrims didn't. They were more into duck, goose, and shellfish.

Last year, when the Reason Podcast (subscribe!) was just getting started, I interviewed Rachel Laudan, best known for the incredible book Cuisine and Empire, a fascinating history of how food and cooking have not simply shaped world events but been at the very center of them.

Laudan, a visiting scholar at the University of Texas, explained that America's national meal, which only really became a thing hundreds of years after the Pilgrims suffered through their early winters, has always functioned as a way of rebuking haughty elites from England and Europe. Laudan is a real firecracker in conversation—when I asked the world-traveling cosmopolitan if there was any food she wouldn't eat, she didn't miss a beat before saying anything organic.

Listen below or here for her compelling, libertarian case against supposedly sustainable farming. It's a great conversation about food, cuisine, etiquette, and so much more. Bring her figuratively to your table—she's the ultimate dinner guest!

Here's the original writeup:

When Thanksgiving became a national holiday back in 1863, it was a repudiation of the French aristocracy, says food historian Rachel Laudan. Europe's haute cuisine, contemporaries believed, "ruined the individual, the household, and the nation." Thus, this "simple meal…became a national celebration embracing all citizens," Laudan wrote in a 2013 Boston Globeessay.

Contemporary novelist and cookbook author Sarah Josepha Hale designed the standard Thanksgiving meal as an affirmation of our (small 'r') republican virtues. Turkey was cheap to procure, pumpkin pie was easy to make, and cranberry sauce was a simple take on the fancy toppings typical in a French court.

The meaning of Thanksgiving has changed over the years—thanks in part to Julia Child's successful effort to democratize French cuisine—but even today, "nobody suggests adding truffles to your turkey," Laudan says.

Nick Gillespie interviewed Laudan about the meaning of Thanksgiving, why she is not a fan of "organic" food, and other aspects of culinary history, drawing on her fascinating 2013 book, Cuisine & Empire.

Click below to listen to that conversation—or subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.

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  1. Yeah, take that, you Frogs. Happy Turkeyday.

  2. Duck, goose and shellfish. Thanksgiving should have more of those.

  3. This woman is full of shit. There were turkeys running around Massachusetts all over the place, and none of the settlers ate them? Sure.

  4. In 1947, as part of a voluntary rationing campaign, the Harry Truman Administration attempted to promote “Poultryless Thursdays,” discouraging Americans from eating poultry or egg products on Thursdays. Because Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, this meant that turkey and pumpkin pie, two Thanksgiving staples, were forbidden, not only for that holiday, but for Christmas and New Year’s Day as well, since those holidays landed on Thursday in 1947. (Pumpkin pie was forbidden because it contained eggs.)

    Notice this is more than two years after WW2 was over — and the New Deal Democrats were still fucking up the economy so much that rationing was necessary.

    1. If the campaign was ‘voluntary’, then the food items weren’t ‘forbidden’, they were ‘discouraged’.

      This also sounds like an good early example of retard nannies moving into government.

  5. I didn’t know I was supposed to be making a political statement with my Thanksgiving meal. Now that I know, I can cheerfully tell you to go fuck yourself. The kids all went out of town for Thanksgiving, I’m here by myself so I went into town last night and bought me a big ol ribeye steak and a bottle of Southern Comfort and I don’t give a shit about thumbing my nose at anybody.

    1. “a big ol ribeye steak and a bottle of Southern Comfort”… Shhyeah, right: more like a bucket of smelly cheese and snails and a Merlot, am I right?

    2. and I don’t give a shit about thumbing my nose at anybody.

      Sez the guy who just thumbed his nose at everybody.

    3. Caesar salad, roast chicken, and tequila for me. All from Costco. It’s a holiday and I’m relaxing, not cooking.

  6. “Freedom From Want”

  7. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! BTW, does anybody know if I’m drunk yet?

    1. I am. The important thing is to ask what you’re drunk on!

      1. As appropriate. I do not remember making this post at all.

  8. “The Reason Podcast is currently killing it at iTunes, where we ranked as the 160th most-popular News & Politics podcast.”

    Unfortunately that means several magnitudes less views than Rachel Maddie.

    1. Rachel Maddow.

      I’m really surprised how often I see people describe her as a genius. It’s like, I like Ed Kray, I don’t call him a genius though. And he’s at least a Maddow.

      1. She was good in school.

      2. She’s a genius at doing mental gymnastics.

      3. Even as a Rhodes Scholar she is only a genius compared to the uneducated lightweights at Fox News such as Hannity.

        1. But you love her just the same, right turd?

      4. She is 20th.

        Of course it is Apple so liberals dominate the list just like conservatives would on something like Bible Thumper Weekly

    2. “The Reason Podcast is currently killing it at iTunes, where we ranked as the 160th most-popular News & Politics podcast.”

      Is 160th supposed to be good or was that self-defecating sarcasm?

      1. At least they’ve gotten to the point where they don’t need someone to make their podcast look shitty for them.

      2. Self defecating? Third party defecating will be all the rage soon.

  9. “Did you ever wonder why we eat turkey, of all things, on Thanksgiving? ”

    I had always presumed it was because 1600s eastern America was lousy with wild turkeys.

  10. It turns out that Samoans are THE major market for turkey tails; most in the US don’t eat them and turkey processors found Samoans loved them! Great; the market comes though for all parties, right?
    Not so fast there, you uncaring libertarians.:

    “Learn to value beak-to-tail cuisine”
    “It is not that we don’t know how to judge quality anymore. But the yardstick we use is calibrated ? intentionally, as I’ve learned ? against a different standard. The modern industrial food system has trained consumers to prioritize quantity and convenience, and to judge freshness on sell-by-date stickers.”…..ate-result

    Shame on you for not eating turkey ass, you spoiled American!
    (BTW, the article is written by a prof of Sociology, just so you’re warned. And why do I have the temptation to just type “prof of Socialism” when I see that?

    1. “The modern industrial food system has trained consumers to prioritize quantity and convenience”

      Oh, for the days of yore, when our discerning ancestors didn’t worry about how much food they had or how much work they had to do to get it, so long as it was quality!

      1. Plus:
        Expiration date? Who cares! More pepper, please, this stuff will be fine!

        1. In fairness, a few people back then certainly did think and act that way.

          Just not our ancestors. Necessarily, given their lack of descendants.

          1. That’s the reason spices were popular; they hid the taste.
            But while current expiration dates are set more by liability considerations than safety, they (and refrigeration) do serve well to prevent food poisoning.
            My point is out prof of Socialism sees observing “sell-by” stickers as somewhat unethical; she seems to think we should spend time figuring out of that meat really IS bad.
            Sorry, I can afford to be wrong and have better things to do with my time.

            1. But, but then the starving kids in Africa will go hungry!

              Like, more than before. Somehow.

  11. I made an authentic Native dish this year, which was pretty neat. Yep, Mexican Oatmeal Soup from Elizabeth Warren’s family cookbook, Pow Wow Chow.

    1. What’s in that? Try Pozole sometime if you want a true home style delight.

  12. All I can say is I cooked my turkey to perfection. That, and who wants left over turkey? This 23lb fucker is taking up to much room in the fridge and the family didn’t take enough with them.

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