The first Thanksgiving was a three day celebration for more than 100 English pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Though not precise about the food, contemporary letters suggest what they ate. We know there was “wildfowl” that could have been wild turkey but goose, duck, swan or passenger pigeons are other possibilities. We also are pretty sure they ate bread or porridge made from corn, and venison, and an onion and herb mixture if they stuffed their birds. But there were no pies because they had no wheat for the crust. And the first mention of cranberry sauce was 50 years later.
So yes, Thanksgiving is about food. But food takes us to the Pilgrims’ and Wampanoags’ economic decisions about allocating land, labor and capital. Even today, so much about Thanksgiving is economic…even the turkey.
Top 10 Economic Reasons For a Thanksgiving Turkey
10. Social Norm: a turkey has been on the Thanksgiving table since the 18th century.*
9. Utility: one turkey feeds many.
7. Substitute goods: better than cows, roosters, venison, swans.**
6. Complementary goods: irresistible stuffing and mashed potatoes.
5. Government: official mandate.***
3. Globalization: leftovers include turkey curry and turkey tacos.
2. Behavioral economics: short term pleasure worth long term cost.
1. After eating too much turkey on Thanksgiving, we are happy to wait a year to eat it again.
* Alexander Hamilton is reported to have said, “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” (I do wonder though if the quote is accurate since Thanksgiving was rather minor then and celebrated only in New England.)
**During the 18th century, with most people living on the farm, the alternatives were cows, hens, roosters, venison or swans. But cows and hens were more valuable alive than dead, roosters are tough, you had to hunt for your venison and swans taste fishy unless you feed them a special wheat diet.
***Proclaiming the holiday would be on the fourth Thursday in November, the Congress added its approval in 1941. But President Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. And almost 200 years before that, in 1777, the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving after a victory against the British.
Our Bottom Line: Economics is Everywhere
Because their meal was all about the production and distribution of their land, labor and capital, we could say that every decision was economic.Built from a foundation of logical reasoning, economics is about a lot more than money.
My sources and more: Always great for interesting history, Smithsonian had the story of the food at