In Search Of.... Who Invented The Thanksgiving Sandwich?

Plymouth County's Signature Sandwich Of Unknown Origin...

Cape Cod's Claim To The Day After Thanksgiving Sandwich

I wrote about our local wild turkey population recently. I then spent considerable time and effort trying to find out who invented the Gobbler.

The Gobbler, as you most likely know, is a regional name for a Turkey/Cranberry/Stuffing sandwich. Depending on where you're getting one, it may have a variety of ingredients. It may also have a variety of names, such as the Mayflower Sandwich, the Thanksgiving Sandwich, the Day After Thanksgiving Sandwich, the John Alden, the Myles Standish, the Squanto, the Samoset, the Turkey Bomb, the TCS, the Black Friday Special, the Pilgrim Sandwich, the November Surprise, the Governor Bradford, and God knows what others.

It is one of America's most popular sandwiches, and on the day after Thanksgiving, it is THE most popular sandwich. While the Fluffernutter is the Boston's signature sandwich, the Gobbler is probably the signature sandwich of Plymouth County. I'd actually use Bourne as the cutoff point from which the lobster roll asserts her sandwich authority over the lands across the Canal.

With the advent of modern appliances, the immediate post-Edison version of the Gobbler was probably invented on the East Coast by whoever got hungry first before the plates were washed. Just like the Earl of Sandwich centuries before, this god-among-us figured out that thick bread makes for a pretty good plate. Before someone invented the fridge, leftover turkey most likely went into a slow-simmering soup.

We "know" that the Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich in the 18th Century so he could eat while he gambled, and never-you-mind better historical claims by Europeans and their trencher/open-faced sandwiches, the ancient Jews and their matze Passover culinary explorations, or the Aztecs and their corn tortillas (often filled with turkey to make history's first turkey sandwich, but the Aztecs were nowhere near the cranberries needed for the Gobbler). None of their stories involve needing a hand free to gamble, so I'm going with Earl. If you are patient, we'll tie the Gobbler back to him.

Turkeys, native to America, were introduced to Europe in the 1500s through Turkish markets via the Spanish. Stuffed turkey was popular in Europe by the 1600s, and bread was most likely on those same tables. Those are 3 of the 4 main ingredients in the Gobbler, but the cranberry sauce was a century away.

In spite of the fact that turkey-at-Plimoth was common knowledge, it didn't become the Thanksgiving anchorman in America until about 1800. If you need an English visual, remember that the Cratchit family from A Christmas Carol (1843) was going to eat a goose before Scrooge intervened with a holiday turkey and some Obamacare. Turkey was a popular holiday meal in America long before Abe Lincoln nationalized the holiday, and long before even that in Europe.

I struck out on finding the actual inventor of the Gobbler, and had difficulty even finding speculation on the matter. There were no claims made on it. Since my research yielded nothing, I am forced to rely on my own creativity and logic.

The Pilgrims look like a good bet, as they had turkey, stuffing (stuffing dates back to the Romans, at least), and- most importantly- access to cranberries. Not only access, but they also were essentially getting the first (white people) crack at them. They were slow to catch on, as the nation/world's first large cranberry cultivation system was established by American Revolution vet Captain Henry Hall in Dennis in 1816, but we were shipping them to Europe by 1820.

The Pilgrims were neither wealthy nor frivolous, and sugar is needed in large amounts to make cranberry sauce as we know it. The Ps might have used lightly sugared cranberries, as straight cranberry is too tart to eat enjoyably- even for someone who considered some nice salted mutton to be good eatin'. Such a thing as sugared berries would have almost certainly been a dessert.

All the necessary ingredients for the Gobbler were in place in some form at the first Thanksgiving. William Bradford's account put turkey, cranberries, and cornbread on the table. Stuffed turkey was a traditional holiday meal in the Europe they had just left. That almost assuredly puts stuffing (of a cornbread variety) on that table as well.

There were creative minds from a variety of cultures sitting at that table, and remember that some of those minds were quite remarkable. In that context, you'd almost be amazed if someone there didn't invent the Gobbler. It'd be like watching Tesla get transported to 2014 and fail to figure out how to turn on the TV.

While that doesn't solve the mystery, it gives us a basis for more speculation. Since we've narrowed it down to the table the Gobbler most likely was first enjoyed at, we have to- for the sake of everybody who got up on the 4th Friday in November and went straight for the hair of the dog- make an effort to name the genius in 1621 who put two and two together and somehow made something tastier than four.

I'll start by looking at the Wampanoags.

They shouldn't be the less obvious choice. They could make their own forms of bread, they had turkey running around, and probably had about 5,000-30,000 years of experience with cranberries before the Europeans arrived.

You can go to Plimoth Plantation tomorrow and see the Wampanoag historical role-players cooking cranberry cornbread (Nasaump) that looks a lot like squishy-style bird stuffing. They even made a cranberry boiled bread, a cranberry syrup called Sassamanesh, and had numerous turkey recipes. They were working with all of the ingredients for centuries.

Any argument against the Wampanoags inventing some form of the Gobbler pretty much hinges on nobody in 5-30000 years putting some meat, cranberries (cranberries were used when making pemmican, making the Wampanoag Gobbler even that much more likely), and some form of stuffing between two pieces of bread.

The reader will note that we mentioned ancient Native Americans using tortillas. Ideas move through different tribes just like they do with different Europeans, and the idea of wrapping food in bread could have quite possibly diffused from Tortilla Land to the Cranberry-Turkey Land. Once that happens, you just need one Algonquin genius.

You can run the Wampanoag-exclusive Gobbler theory right up to the first Thanksgiving. The Wampanoags introduced cranberries to starving English settlers, and they are almost certainly among the berries (although most likely in food prepared by the Wampanoags) described by Bradford in his account of the first Thanksgiving. 

I'd even pick a Wampanoag (not used to knives and forks and so forth) to be more likely to create a Gobbler when presented with turkey, cranberries, stuffing and bread than some scared and rigid European who was used to European table manners.

I'd even throw in the chance that some Pilgrim woman fashioned some sort of bread-cup and filled it with the Gobbler ingredients for a departing Wampanoag, inventing the Gobbler while concurrently serving America's first take-out meal.

The other option at that table to invent the Gobbler relies more on mysticism and legend... which you'd think would favor the Wampanoags, but they actually have too good of a grasp on Common Sense in this discussion to latch onto the abstract stuff. It favors Bourne.

I can make this simple. Even the most ardent supporter of the Wampanoag Gobbler theory would have to admit that the Great Spirit usually gives you a sign. While Plimoth had the more famous Wampanoag interaction and is the most likely Genesis Spot for a white man's Gobbler, the majority of trade between colonists and natives and the New Netherlands in the time following the feast went down at the Aptucxet Trading Post, in Bourne. There was a great deal of cultural and culinary diffusion going on in Bourne until around or before the Great Colonial Hurricane blew America's First Store flat in 1635.

If Plimoth was the Gobbler's Bethlehem, Bourne may have indeed been the Gobbler's Nazareth. From there, much like Jesus, it took over half the world. The ethnicity of the first Gobbler's creator matters less to me than the chance that someone from Bourne may have invented (or at least first ingested) one of America's greatest sandwiches.

The only problem here is that Bourne wasn't Bourne until 1884, when it broke away from the town it used to belong to, the town named for a British aristocrat, the town that wins the Pilgrims and Bourne the right to call the Gobbler their own, the town that grants my theory the approval of the Great Spirit, and the town that ends this discussion.

The name of that town?

"Sandwich. "

Gerard's Farm, in Marshfield

I (and now, you) may be the one person aware of this, but Bongi's Turkey Roost and Gerard's Turkey Farm are part of a notable equation.

Neither store owner (each with decades in the local business) could name a third competitor closer than West Bridgewater, and the next towns I heard mentioned were Framingham and Leominster... and they might not actually be the literal sandwich factories that Gerard's and Bongi's are.

However, in spite of the fact that there appears to be almost zero demand for such businesses even 20 miles away and outward, a very small area in a very small pair of towns is able to support two turkey sandwich specialty shops.

Bongi's and Gerard's have been in direct competition for almost 70 years, and both businesses are coasting along nicely. You can tell they are doing well, because the respective owners speak well of each other. Try this with, say, Local Oil Guy A and B or Local Car Dealership A and B, especially if they are 1) within 10 miles of each other, 2) selling the exact same product to the same 4000 households, and 3) the only businesses of that sort in the region.

Nope, it seems that demand is just fine for two turkey sandwich stores in this area. In fact, based on the bustling Tuesday lunch business I saw both establishments conducting, Plymouth County could probably support a few more businesses of this sort. Swamp Yankees love their Gobblers.

I did manage to discover some Class Distinction among the stores. Bongi's, in ritzy Duxbury, gets the Pilgrim crowd. Gerard's, along the road to the sea in Marsh Vegas, draws in the Irish Riviera crowd. Both stores have very parochial customer bases, as lovers of one tend to never go to the other.

These facts, plus the physical location of the businesses smack dab in the middle of towns founded by people who ate at the first Thanksgiving, pretty much cements the location of the Gobbler Heartland in a Duxbury/Marshfield semi-circle that, to dot the Is and cross the Ts, should also include neighboring towns Scituate, Kingston and Pembroke, and the cranberry producing towns of Carver, Hanson, Halifax, Plympton, Carver, and Wareham,. Plymouth and Bourne/Sandwich's inclusion in the mix goes without saying.

As I said earlier, the mainland/Bourne side of the Cape Cod Canal is where the Gobbler is supplanted by the Lobster Roll as the signature sandwich of the region. North of the Gobbler Zone, it becomes the Fluffernutter. Beyond that, you're on your own.

Duxbury and Marsh Vegas can support two turkey sandwich stores. Nearby towns all over the South Shore, South Coast and Cape Cod have some form of the Gobbler on their sandwich shop menus. It then quickly levels off to a range of "better delis have a Gobbler Sandwich with some clever Pilgrim name as a lunch special now and then" to "fails to put stuffing or cranberry in it" as you get away from the cranberry-producing regions

You'd be amazed how quickly you would encounter areas where this sandwich is only eaten a day or two after Thanksgiving once you leave Massachusetts. I was raised in Ground Zero on this one, and generally assemble the necessary ingredients about once a month or so, depending on how close to Gerard's or Bongi's I get.

Bongi's, in Duxbury!

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