Why Do We Eat Turkey at Thanksgiving?
The staple of Thanksgiving dinner tables across America have interesting origins
Thanksgiving is just days away and in short order millions of Americans will sit down to consume a sumptuous feast that for the majority will feature turkey as the main course. The poultry has been a staple of the holiday meal for years but when did the tradition start and why was that particular meat chosen from any number of other options?
According to popular legend, the first instance of American Thanksgiving occurred in late November, 1621, when English settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts had a communal meal with the local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. Historians generally believe such a meal took place but did vary significantly from the traditional rites we now perform across the country — including the strong likelihood that there was no turkey served. Furthermore, the idea that sparked this initial gathering was likely generated from festive harvest festivals and other “days of thanksgiving” celebrations that were fairly common in Europe.
The celebration of Thanksgiving was initially designated a holiday in North America in 1777 by the Continental Congress. Alexander Hamilton was an early proponent of serving turkey at such celebrations, exclaiming, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
More than half a century later, President Abraham Lincoln solidified its status by making it a national holiday in 1863, during the height of the divisive and destructive Civil War. At a time where there was little to be thankful for, it was an opportunity for reflection and family, which undoubtedly helped spark its rapid popularity.
By the turn of the 19th century, turkey had become a popular meat to feature at Thanksgiving meals. Not only were they plentiful in the United States (one expert estimated there might have been as many as 10 million turkeys by the time of the arrival of Europeans), but they were generally large enough to feed a large family. Additionally, if they were raised domestically, they offered little in the way of utilitarian value besides its meat. Chickens laying eggs; cows giving milk; and pigs breeding for supplies of meat were owned by many but much more valuable for what they could provide in the long run than gobblers.
Popular culture may have also played a significant role in popularizing the other, other white meat. Two widely-read books have been most frequently credited with promoting the use of turkey as an extravagant holiday meal.
The first was Sarah Josepha Hale’s (perhaps best known as the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb) 1827 novel Northwood, which extolled the virtues of New England and was also famously anti-slavery — advocating for those in bondage to be freed and moved to Liberia.
In the book, she devoted an entire chapter about a Thanksgiving set in snowy New England, including describing a roasted turkey “placed at the head of the table.” Following the success of the book, the author also began stumping for Thanksgiving to be made into a national holiday, which was eventually realized by Lincoln’s decree after she reached her later years.
Another book that embraced the culture of holiday turkey was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. With the Cratchit family teetering on the brink of financial disaster and painful hunger, the happy ending with a wonderful Christmas celebration is punctuated by a mammoth turkey, courtesy of foe turned benefactor Ebenezer Scrooge. At a time when reading was at the forefront of entertainment, such a vivid and happy depiction could go quite a long way in altering public opinion.
As turkey became a popular Thanksgiving staple, it became engrained in American culture. Serving it, especially for new Americans, was a way to show belonging and Americanism. “In the early 20th century, things like turkey and cornbread and stuffing were something that was taught to new, who were then immigrants, as a way of Americanizing them,” food historian Tracey Duetsch told CBS Minnesota.
According to one poll, 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving — part of the 16 pound average they consume annually. In total, some 46 million turkeys are cooked on Thanksgiving, with the average weight of each bird tipping the scales at 15 pounds.
Although it appears that most Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving due to a wide variety of reasons from our past, there is no doubting the practice has continued growing more popular over time. Today, turkey growers produce approximately one bird for every person in the country, as opposed to one for every 29 people 100 years ago. That’s a lot of meat, which remains the star of the show on tables across America in late November every year and show no signs of giving up the center of tables any time soon.