Americans have many official and unofficial holidays to mark a variety of occasions and events. Some are solemn, some commemorative and others traditional or cultural. And while most have ties to what people eat on the occasion -- candy on Halloween and Valentines Day, hot dogs and watermelon on the Fourth of July, for example -- no holiday is as closely associated with food as Thanksgiving.
That can hardly be a surprise given the origins of the holiday. Our Thanksgiving holiday, historians say, is a descendant of a three-day feast held by the Pilgrims in 1621 to celebrate a bounteous harvest that would allow them to survive the coming winter. It wasn't the only harvest celebration of the period, though. Similar meals of thanksgiving were held elsewhere in the colonies. The custom of sitting down to a meal to give thanks for a bountiful harvest is not unique to the United States, of course, but the tradition here has continued for nearly four centuries.
Thanksgiving didn't become an official U.S. holiday, however, until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving. Franklin D. Roosevelt later amended the date, making the fourth Thursday of the month -- never the fifth -- the date for Thanksgiving. And while the date might have changed, the tradition of gathering with family and friends to give thanks for the earth's bounty remains constant.
Turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cherries and apples for pies, green beans, corn, stuffing and breads have become the mainstays of the holiday meal, though not all were served at what we now call the First Thanksgiving. And as is befitting the holiday, the now traditional foods are produced in amazing quantities in the United States. Federal agencies document the bounty. Consider the numbers.
* About 248 million turkeys, weighing more than 7 billion pounds, are expected to be raised in the United States in 2011. Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia and Indiana are the biggest producers, accounting for about two-thirds of the total.
* The forecast for cranberry production in the United States this year is about 750 million pounds. Wisconsin, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, are the top producers.
* The total U.S. sweet potato crop this year is expected to be more than 2.4 billion pounds. North Carolina is the leading producer.
* The United States produced 39 percent of the world's corn in during last year, about 12.1 billion bushels. The states of Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota account for more than 50 percent of that production. Other major corn-producing states include Indiana, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky.
* More than 656,340 tons of snap green beans, that other holiday vegetable favorite, will be harvested this year, with Wisconsin the largest producer.
* The 2011 pumpkin harvest will total over 1.1 billion pounds this year. Illinois is the top producer, followed by California, New York and Ohio.
* Tart cherries for pies come mostly from Michigan, which produces the bulk of the nation's 266.1 million pounds of the fruit.
* Most of the nation's apples, another pie favorite, come from Washington, New York, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
* The nation will produce about 2.01 billion bushels of wheat -- an essential ingredient of bread, rolls and, of course, pie crusts -- this year. Kansas, Montana and North Dakota will account for about a third of that wheat production.
That bounty and the land and labor that produces it are at the heart of thanksgiving, even as we acknowledge and worry about the increasing inequities that make it difficult for many Americans to truly share in the nation's blessings. Even so, Thanksgiving Day, on the whole, is a time to savor the blessings of family, freedom and food. In that spirit, we wish our readers a happy and safe holiday.