But, for the last half-century, one food group has been conspicuously missing from the typical Thanksgiving table. Confronted by the usual festive spread, a Pilgrim would no doubt ask: "Whither the shellfish, Prudence?"
Lobsters, clams and mussels were almost certainly served at the 1621 feast that's come to be commemorated as the First Thanksgiving. While the Pilgrims weren't especially fond of seafood -- Plimoth Plantation's culinarian Kathleen Wall says the community considered shellfish "the last of God's blessings" -- the settlement's proximity to the sea meant waterborne creatures were a staple of harvest meals, alongside earthy corn porridges, turnips and grapes. Pilgrims and Wampanoags supped on seal, swan and extravagantly large crustaceans.
"They talk about these lobsters that fed three sailors," Wall marvels.
What wasn't available to the Pilgrims was the delicacy that later diners would associate most strongly with the holiday: oysters.
"Oysters are on Cape Cod, oysters are at Boston, but there are no oysters at Plymouth," Wall says. But, much like dinner rolls and apple pie, oysters' absence from the first Thanksgiving menu didn't prevent the dish from earning its Thanksgiving stripes. By the time Abe Lincoln got around to codifying the holiday in 1863, oysters were classified as expected Thanksgiving fare. Many families would no sooner skip the oyster course than fail to roast a turkey.
In 1853, when the New York Times reported on a charity Thanksgiving observance it termed "the most pleasing celebration of Thanksgiving Day in the City of New York," its correspondent described the $350 worth of meat and oysters purchased for the party: "It was as good as a play to see the little fellows eat."
Oyster soup showed up on an 1896 Thanksgiving menu endorsed by Fannie Farmer, while other contemporary cookbook authors advocated for oyster cocktail, oyster bisque and oysters on the half-shell. "The turkey may be stuffed with oysters, or oyster sauce may be used in place of giblet sauce, or scalloped oysters may be served as a side dish. Oysters seem to be a part of the Thanksgiving dinner," Sarah Tyson Rorer advised in 1905's "Mrs. Rorer's Every Day Menu Book."
Nobody's quite certain how oysters earned their Thanksgiving designation, although it seems likely their inclusion reflects a collision of fashion and fortuitousness. The Victorians who pioneered the modern Thanksgiving menu were infatuated with oysters, which tend to be at their plumpest, tastiest best right around the holiday.
"I always thought that was why oysters were part of the Thanksgiving menu," says Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Alabama. "They're beginning to fatten up."
Oysters vanished from most proscribed Thanksgiving menus by the mid-1950s, for reasons food historians say are easier to understand. The Chesapeake oyster industry, which once produced the vast majority of the nation's oysters, was so badly decimated by disease, pollution and reef destruction that, by 2003, its harvest stood at a mere 1 percent of its 1903 take. Declining oyster stocks pushed up oyster prices across the country.
"Oysters now are far more expensive," P & J Oyster Company's Al Sunseri says. "The price per pound can get as high as foie gras."
Food historian Sandy Oliver, author of the definitive book on Thanksgiving food ways, "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie," suspects oysters might also have been a casualty of changing dining patterns. Since oysters had become synonymous with soup at Thanksgiving, when the soup course disappeared, the oysters did too.
"Any formal meal began with soup," Oliver says. "Now a lot of people don't start with soup at all. And oysters had fit that slot."
While oysters may no longer make the steam tables at most Thanksgiving buffets, the tradition of eating oysters for the holiday still thrives in the South, particularly in coastal areas.
"We've had a tradition in my family forever to have scalloped oysters," Nelson says. "It's an old family favorite and everybody looks forward to it."
According to Nelson, Thanksgiving remains a busy time for oyster producers, with retail sales outpacing even Christmastime figures. Sunseri says he always sells out to celebrants for whom it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without oyster dressing.
"Even following Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans was devastated, it amazed me how many people tried to maintain their tradition of getting their oysters from us," Sunseri says. "People scattered all over the country called us."
P & J filled their orders, giving displaced New Orleanians one small reason to be thankful -- and a time-tested way to express their thanks.