This month, millions of Americans are preparing for one of their most popular holidays – Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a holiday rich in history and tradition. In this blog series, we explore the origins of Thanksgiving and its traditions. We will also provide you with delicious recipes which are perfect for your Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations. In this first instalment, we concentrate on roast turkey: the star of the Thanksgiving and Christmas show. Let’s get cracking!
The History of Thanksgiving
People in the United States and Canada observe Thanksgiving as a holiday. We often trace the celebrations, as we now know them, back to the Pilgrims’ harvest feast in 1621. However, even before the arrival of European settlers, indigenous people would celebrate and give thanks for their bountiful harvests.
Many indigenous groups closely associated these harvest festivals with their spiritual beliefs. They viewed the earth as life-giving and believed giving thanks maintained natural balance and harmony.
Celebrations involved dance, music, feasting, and giving thanks to spirits influencing land fertility. These rituals often involved the entire community, reinforcing a sense of unity and gratitude among its members.
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The Arrival of the Pilgrims
Whilst Thanksgiving rituals were widespread among indigenous people in America, the Pilgrim story dominates common Thanksgiving imagery.
The Pilgrims were a group of English Separatists who sought religious freedom. Upon arriving in Plymouth, Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they encountered harsh conditions and a challenging winter. Many of them fell ill, and nearly half of the original group did not survive. The surviving Pilgrims struggled to find food and shelter.
It was during these challenging times that the Pilgrims formed a crucial alliance with the Wampanoag people. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims essential survival skills, including how to cultivate native crops like maize (corn) and squash.
In November 1621, following a successful harvest, the Pilgrims, together with the Wampanoag, celebrated with a three-day feast. This event is considered the first celebration of Thanksgiving as it is now known.
A Celebration of Survival and Friendship
The first Thanksgiving was more than just a feast; it was a symbol of survival and gratitude. It also illustrates how people from different backgrounds can come together in the spirit of thanksgiving. It is this spirit of thanksgiving which is still celebrated today.
Today, Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to come together to express gratitude and share a hearty meal. Your typical Thanksgiving meal usually consists of roast turkey, potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie which families and friends enjoy whilst watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It is also common for touch football games to be played on the day in order to burn off some of the calories from the delicious feast to come! And of course, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without an actual expression of gratitude. Many family traditions therefore involve the sharing of things that you are thankful for.
Where Is Thanksgiving Celebrated?
Thanksgiving is primarily celebrated in the United States where celebrations take place on the fourth Thursday of November.
However, Thanksgiving has not always been a holiday and it was not until 1863, whilst in the midst of the Civil War, when President Lincoln signed a proclamation now known as “A National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” Since this day, Thanksgiving celebrations have been held every final Thursday in November (other than when President Roosevelt, in an attempt to increase sales during the Great Depression, brought the date forward by a week. This move was hugely unpopular and in 1941 the president officially declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November.)
Canadians also celebrate Thanksgiving although this takes place in October and tends to be a much more lowkey event than celebrations in the US. The first Canadian Thanksgiving is said to have taken place as a celebration of the safe arrival of the English explorer Martin Frobisher to what is now Newfoundland in 1578. Thanksgiving celebrations were then held as a means to thank God for keeping explorers safe as they travelled to the New World. Over time, the tradition evolved as a way to express thanks for a bountiful Fall harvest.
Today, Thanksgiving in Canada takes place on the second Monday in October however, employers are not required to give workers the day off. Instead, families and friends usually gather on the Sunday before to celebrate the holiday.
The Thanksgiving Meal
The star of any Thanksgiving meal is of course the roast turkey however, turkey as a key part of the Thanksgiving celebrations does not appear until the 1800s with turkey being the centrepiece in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag held their three day celebration, the Wampanoag brought deer and the Pilgrims provided wild fowl. Whilst of course this could have included turkeys, historians believe it is far more likely that the meal originally involved duck or goose.
Enough history, it’s finally time to turn our attention to the food itself. This recipe, which serves 8-10, will provide you with a perfectly juicy turkey that the whole family will adore.
You will need to roast your turkey for about 20 minutes per kilo plus another 90 minutes for birds over 4kg. So for our 5kg turkey, we will be cooking for around 3.5 hours.
Perfectly Juicy Roast Turkey
5kg (12 pound approx) fully thawed turkey
Himalayan salt and black pepper
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 or 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 or 2 sprigs fresh sage
1 or 2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 lemon, quartered
- HERB BUTTER
170g (¾ cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon Himalayan salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
- VEGETABLE TRIVET
1 onion, peeled and quartered
3 celery sticks, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
- Thaw your turkey. Frozen turkey will take around 24 hours to thaw for every 2.25kg (5 pounds). For our 5 kilo I would allow 3 days for the turkey to thaw in the fridge. I also allow the turkey to come down to room temperature for around an hour or two before I start to cook it. This helps the turkey cook more evenly.
- Once your turkey has fully defrosted, remove the giblet bag from inside the turkey. You can also buy turkeys where the giblets have already been removed if you will not be using the same for your gravy.
- Preheat your oven to 160°C (325°F).
- Use kitchen roll to dry the outside of the turkey (this will ensure you get a nice crispy skin on your turkey). Season the turkey (including the cavity) with salt and pepper. Then fill it with the onion, lemon, and fresh herbs. Be sure not to overfill your turkey as you want air to be able to flow freely.
- In a small bowl, make the herb butter by stirring the softened butter, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme together.
- Loosen the skin of the turkey by GENTLY sliding your fingers underneath. Then rub about 1/3 of the herb butter between the skin and turkey breasts.
- Rub the rest of the herb butter all over the outside of the turkey.
- Place the vegetables on a large roasting tray (you can also use disposable trays if you prefer), then place the turkey on top of the bed of vegetables, tucking in the wing tips under the turkey to stop them burning.
- Place the turkey in the oven and roast for about 20 minutes per kilo plus another 90 minutes for birds over 4kg. In our case, we will be roasting for 3.5 hours. The internal temperature of your turkey should reach 70°C (158°-160°F). Check the temperature by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest parts of the breast and leg. Once your turkey has reached 70°C it will be cooked to perfection because, whilst the recommended minimum temperature for turkey is 72°C (165°F) the turkey will continue to to cook once it’s removed from the oven and will rise in temperature to the required temperature after it’s rested.
- You should allow the turkey to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. Don’t worry if your turkey is ready long before you are ready to serve up lunch – it will stay warm for up to 2 hours after cooking if wrapped loosely with aluminium foil
- For a step-by-step guide on how to carve your turkey like a pro, check out this guide by Jamie Oliver.
Stay Tuned For More
Of course, turkey is just one of the components of a delicious Thanksgiving (or Christmas) meal. For the meal to be a success you will also need delicious potatoes, tasty (no boil!) veggies, stuffing, gravy and, if you still have space for more, dessert. Over the next few weeks, we will bring you recipes to ensure that your Thanksgiving (or Christmas) meal is the best one yet. Be sure to check back in!
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