Archive for Sunday, November 28, 1999


November 28, 1999


Turkey, turkey, turkey and some more turkey. No matter where you are today, chances are a big bird is on the menu.

If you're an American who doesn't eat turkey today, you're part of a small minority.

Unlike meals at other holidays, which vary widely from household to household based on ethnic and family traditions, the Thanksgiving meal is widely similar anywhere you might be in the United States, said Barbara Shortridge, a geography professor at Kansas University.

Shortridge teaches a Geography of American Foodways class at KU. In it, students study "who eats what where," as well as the history, sociology and agriculture behind American diets.

"I don't know how the turkey industry did this," Shortridge said of omnipresent Thanksgiving bird. "They got us all thinking we should eat turkey."

One survey has shown 91 percent of meals on Thanksgiving include turkey, she said, plus the traditional trimmings of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, some sort of cranberry dish, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

"At Christmas, everybody does their own thing," Shortridge said. "Family favorites, ethnic foods. One family I know of Mexican-American origin has tamales at Christmas."

A Kansas State University food science professor agreed with Shortridge.

"There is a lot more variability in the traditional Christmas dinner than with Thanksgiving," said Karen Penner, professor of food science.

The dish with the most variation at Thanksgiving is the stuffing, Shortridge said.

Italian-American families frequently include Italian sausage in their stuffing, she said. In Minnesota, wild rice is used. On the East Coast between Maine and Massachusetts, oysters are a staple stuffing ingredient.

The traditional Thanksgiving dinner is "a very New England meal," Shortridge said, "except for the sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are very Southern."

Usually, diets are determined by access and culture, Penner said.

"We can't eat something if we don't have access to it," she said. "You can't access it if you don't have the money available to buy it. One reason we don't eat as much lamb is we have good access to beef, pork and poultry."

The culture of a family also plays an important part in deciding what's to eat, Penner said. For instance a Jewish family that observes a kosher diet usually will eat far different foods than its Protestant neighbors.

Why the Thanksgiving menu is so set across the country also may have to do with culture, she said.

"Isn't that our image of Thanksgiving?" Penner said. "In the third grade don't we make the black-and-white pilgrim costumes? The pilgrims probably ate wild turkey. Isn't that the whole myth?"

Based on Shortridge's research, the only other holiday meal that comes close to approaching Thanksgiving in its national uniformity is that served on the Fourth of July.

"My students and I could agree on hamburgers and hot dogs, corn on the cob. A summer cookout, picnic meal," Shortridge said. But "one student from the East Coast said he wouldn't have hamburgers or hot dogs. He said he'd have lobster. It's a very regional thing."

-- Erwin Seba's phone message number is 832-7145. His e-mail address is

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