One Reason We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving

LET'S hear it for the Pilgrims and their main menu.

They landed by mistake at Plymouth Rock 375 years ago this month (they were trying to find Virginia) and had a difficult first year at their settlement, which they called ''Plimoth.'' (The Pilgrims were not only indifferent navigators; their spelling left something to be desired - or ours does.)

Things were much improved in the autumn of the second year. So, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians and their chief, Massasoit, for three days of feasting and recreation (Pilgrim recreation included competitions in Indignant Sputtering and Disapproving Glares). They bagged a brace of local turkeys for the feasting which is - theoretically, anyway - why we still have turkey dinners on Thanksgiving.

Now then. As well as turkeys there were also lots of moose rambling around eastern Massachusetts in the 17th century. What if the Pilgrim fathers had offered Massasoit and his merry lads a dinner of moose rather than turkey?

The implications for succeeding generations boggle the mind. Every November millions of Americans would be clamoring for moose.

These immense, dim-witted animals like to live near water - ergo, we'd have hundreds of moose ranches crowding the shores of the Great Lakes (since we have no other sufficiently large bodies of fresh water). Instead of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Duluth, Buffalo, and other delightful cities, there would be an endless, odiferous chain of mooseries catering to the national demand.

IF you were going to have 60 or 70 friends and relations coming for Thanksgiving dinner, you'd naturally want a whole moose. According to the Betty Crocker Book of Moose Menus, cooking your average one-ton moose is a formidable undertaking. First you have to shave off its thick, shaggy hair which, it is reckoned, takes 26 competent barbers 11 days.

Then you find a hill in a coal field, dig a cave, and trundle the naked moose inside. The hill is set on fire. After you have read the entire ''Iliad'' in the original Greek, the moose will be done. Moose meat, we are told, tastes like dry, gamy beef. After cooking, the huge antlers make excellent jai alai rackets for gorillas - providing you can teach gorillas to play jai alai.

In early 17th century Massachusetts it was doubtless easier to snag a few turkeys than it was to bring down a moose. The Pilgrims probably tried unsuccessfully to hit several over the head with large clubs.

All of which is why we've been spared the above moose mess and have turkey on the fourth Thursday in November.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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