Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving Day?
In 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving, they were gobbling up many more foods than just turkey. Since lobster, goose, duck, seal, eel, and cod were plentiful during this time, these foods were most likely the main courses of this first feast. Deer meat and wild fowl are the only two items that historians know for sure were menu of this autumn celebration.
Although juicy and tender butterball turkeys are the main cuisine of today’s Thanksgiving celebrations, these birds were NOT the most popular centerpieces on the first Thanksgiving tables. So how did the turkey become the main mascot of modern-day Thanksgiving if we don’t know for certain that turkeys were at this first feast?
One story tells of how Queen Elizabeth of 16th century England was chewing down on roast goose during a harvest festival. When news was delivered to her that the Spanish Armada had sunk on its way to attack her beloved England, the queen was so pleased that she order a second goose to celebrate the great news.
Thus, the goose became the favorite bird at harvest time in England. When the Pilgrims arrived in America from England, roasted turkey replaced roasted goose as the main cuisine because wild turkeys were more abundant and easier to find than geese.
The use of the turkey in the USA for Thanksgiving precedes Lincoln’s nationalization of the holiday in 1863. Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that no “Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” and many of the Founding Fathers (particularly Benjamin Franklin) had high regard for the wild turkey as an American icon, but turkey was uncommon as Thanksgiving fare until after 1800. By 1857, turkey had become part of the traditional dinner in New England.
Turkey is the most common main dish of a Thanksgiving dinner, to the point where Thanksgiving is sometimes colloquially called “Turkey Day.” In 2006, American turkey growers were expected to raise 270 million turkeys, to be processed into five billion pounds of turkey meat valued at almost $8 billion, with one third of all turkey consumption occurring in the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, and a per capita consumption of almost 18 pounds (8.2 kg).
The Broad Breasted White turkey is particularly bred for Thanksgiving dinner and similar large feasts; its large size (specimens can grow to over 40 pounds) and meat content make it ideal for such situations, although the breed must be artificially bred and suffers from health problems due to its size.
Most Thanksgiving turkeys are stuffed with a bread-based mixture and roasted. Sage is the traditional herb added to the stuffing (also called dressing if NOT cooked inside the bird), along with chopped celery, carrots, and onions. Other ingredients, such as chopped chestnuts or other tree nuts, crumbled sausage or bacon, cranberries, raisins, or apples, may be added to stuffing. Deep-fried turkey is rising in popularity due to its shorter preparation time, but carries safety risks.
The consumption of turkey on Thanksgiving is so ingrained in American culture that each year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live turkey to the President of the United States prior to each Thanksgiving. These turkeys were initially slaughtered and eaten for the President’s Thanksgiving dinner; since 1989, the presented turkeys have typically been given a mock “pardon” to great fanfare and sent to a park to live out the rest of their usually short natural lives.