By Frank E. Vaerewijck, The Firehouse Foodie
Turkey is a staple for Thanksgiving as we all know, but why? As a kid, we have images of Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread, much like we do at the firehouse, around a big table filled with all sorts of food and a huge turkey right there in the middle. Everyone dressed up in their nice clothing, all friendly and boisterous. Is that really what they did? Well, since all of this is highly debatable, after doing some research, it has been discovered that there were some written accounts.
According to Ethan Trex of MentalFloss.com, turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth, which is considered the First Thanksgiving (though historians and fans of Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the “first” part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, as colonist William Bradford noted in his journal. However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims’ harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, author of Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow’s first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering “wild fowl” for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.
So why do we chow down on turkey, then? It helps to know a bit about the history of Thanksgiving. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn’t completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey. Alexander Hamilton once remarked, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
When Bradford’s journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members and, unlike chickens or cows, they didn’t serve much utilitarian purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn’t so common that it didn’t seem like a suitable choice for a special occasion, either. An interesting 2007 piece in Slate discussed these reasons for turkey’s prominence but also made another intriguing point. The publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843 may have helped force along the turkey’s cause as a holiday delicacy when Scrooge magnanimously sends the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey.
As you sit down to a table full of food whether at the firehouse or your house, now you will have something to talk about this holiday season, and “That’s Bringing the Firehouse Home!” Happy Thanksgiving from The Firehouse Foodie!
Lip-Smacking Stuffing (because everything’s better with bacon!)
1 (16 oz.) package bacon
1 loaf sourdough bread, cubed (about 10 cups)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage, divided
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
3 cups chicken stock
2 eggs, lightly beaten
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Place cubed sourdough on two baking sheets.
- Bake 10-15 minutes, stirring bread occasionally until toasted but not browned. Place toasted bread cubes into extra-large bowl; set aside.
- Cook bacon according to package directions. Place cooked bacon on paper towels to drain and cool; set aside.
- Leave 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings in pan (drain any extra) and add 2 tablespoons butter and garlic to skillet.
- Cook garlic, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes.
- Add onion and peppers. Cook until onions are translucent.
- Add remaining herbs, including remaining sage, to skillet. Cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add onion herb mixture to bowl with bread cubes.
- Butter a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish; set aside.
- Add chicken stock and remaining butter to skillet and scrape browned bits from bottom of pan as it cooks. Bring to a bubble. Once you see the first bubbles, remove from heat and pour over bread cubes.
- Add eggs.
- Toss gently until combined and pour into prepared baking dish.
- Cover with foil and bake 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake 15 minutes more.
Enjoy and remember, EVERYTHING is better with bacon!
Frank E. Vaerewijck has had a passion for the fire service that has spanned 20 years. He has been a volunteer and career firefighter and is currently a firefighter/EMT with Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department (yes, where the bacon comes from, THAT Smithfield). He has passed on his passion for the fire service through instruction and mentorship. That same passion he has for the fire service is shared with his love of food. In 2006, Vaerewyck won an Iron Chef-style competition sponsored by a radio station in Richmond, Virginia. That is where he also furthered his education by attending a Culinary Arts Program. As the Firehouse Foodie, he has been compiling recipes to be included in a cookbook that will give others the opportunity to see their hometown heroes not just as firefighters but as the firehouse chefs they truly are.