Nov 22, 2023
Why We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving Transcript
Alexander Hamilton himself once asserted that “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” But why have we stayed with this tradition? Read the transcript here.
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For many, the noble turkey is a holiday icon, the headliner of Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by its opening acts, stuffing and gravy. But just how did America come to associate its only native bird with its biggest binge-eating day of the year? Well, today, we’re writing the cookbook on how turkeys became the Thanksgiving bird of choice.
But before we get started, be sure to subscribe to the Weird History Food channel, and let us know in the comments below what other holiday mainstays you would like to hear about. All right, all aboard, the gravy train.
Turkeys have been around for millions of years. All six subspecies of turkey are native to North America and they’re separated from their more chickeny counterparts by at least 45 million years of evolution. They sleep in trees. They can fly short distances and they can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, faster if they’re on rocket skates. Though there is evidence that ancient Native Americans farmed turkeys in what is now the Southwestern United States.
It’s believed that turkeys weren’t widely domesticated until about 2,000 years ago when the Mayans first started breeding them for both food and for ritualistic purposes. Since these Mexican turkeys were the largest population of domesticated gobblers around, they were the first group of turkeys that the Spanish Conquistadors came in contact with.
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Because a bird of that size gets everyone excited, the Spanish then started shipping turkeys back home as early as 1519. Turkey farms soon proliferated across Europe, and by the 1600s, they had become a commonplace food source for many Western Europeans. Many 17th century Brits even began incorporating turkey into their own feast days as turkeys are huge, capable of growing well over 20 pounds in the wild, and can feed a ton of people all at once.
It therefore follows that as America’s earliest settlers came to stake their claim in the New World. Many brought these giant turkeys with them like coolers on a road trip. And because of this back and forth importation, most domesticated turkeys today, even those bred in North American regions where other subspecies of wild turkey are dominant are usually the descendants of those early Mexican turkeys.
When, in September of 1620, the pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock, they didn’t have any of those Mexican turkeys with them, that it’s not historically certain that they had any livestock with them at all. Instead, they had a supply of beer, biscuits, peas, and dried meats, among other basic provisions. And to be fair, many of us have gone on trips where beer and beef jerky were our only provisions.
It wasn’t enough though. And as the story goes, the first winter in the New world was devastating for the Pilgrims. Of the initial 102 that came over from Europe, only 53 survived their first year in America. So, making it through that first year was a real achievement. And the first Thanksgiving, which took place sometime after the 1621 harvest was probably a pretty rowdy party. The settlers were joined for their three-day feast by about 90 people of the Wampanoag tribe who brought with them five whole dear as a gift for the colony’s governor.
Even with all of this food and all of these guests, though, the first Thanksgiving was seemingly unnoteworthy to the Pilgrims. Harvest feasts were common back in Europe, and days of Thanksgiving were regularly held back in England. Consequently, there is only one known firsthand account of this historic meal, and it comes in the form of a letter written by Edward Winslow. Winslow wrote, “Our governor sent four men on fowling. They four in one day killed as much fowl as served the company almost a week.”
Unfortunately, fowl can refer to all sorts of different birds. And historians today are likewise uncertain as to exactly what type of bird was eaten at the first Thanksgiving. What we do know is that whatever kind of bird it was, these dudes shot a week’s worth of them in one very loud day. Some doubt it was turkey though, and instead argue that duck or goose were more likely to have been served.
But others point to the writings of William Bradford, the elected leader of the Plymouth Colony who told of the large store of turkeys the colonists managed to stockpile that fall. Still, regardless of whether or not they dipped into that stockpile, whatever fowl the pilgrim served was most likely just a side dish rather than the meal centerpiece. After all, the Wampanoag did bring five whole deer.
In the decades that followed, settlers and early Americans continued to hold such harvest feasts, but few associated them with the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. Instead, they were simply continuing their own European traditions. Just as the OG Pilgrims had, a practice that continued on without disruption until the American Revolution.
As the US broke away from British rule and attempted to form a unique national identity, many turned to America’s native birds for culinary inspiration. The turkey became a national symbol for many Americans, and it became increasingly commonplace on post-revolutionary dinner tables.
Despite the popular myth, Benjamin Franklin never actually pushed for the turkey to become the national bird, but he did go on the record saying that turkeys are much more respectable than bald eagles. But how do they taste with gravy? No, we’re seriously asking.
Likewise, Alexander Hamilton supposedly once asserted that, “No citizen of the US shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” The Founding Fathers were big into turkey hash. Despite these declarations, things didn’t truly get moving until Sarah Josepha Hale most famous today for having written the absolute banger, Mary Had a Little Lamb published her first ever novel, Northwood.
Northwood is an 1827 anti-slavery work that spends an entire chapter detailing an idyllic New England Thanksgiving, complete with a roasted turkey placed at the head of the table. At the time, Thanksgiving was mostly celebrated regionally with the New England states taking it the most seriously, kind of like Dunkin’ Donuts. Likewise, many individual states had their own official Thanksgiving Days. With Thanksgiving being held anywhere from October to January, depending on where you lived.
Although George Washington himself declared November is final Thursday to be a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer in 1789, it was supposed to be a one-time event rather than an annual holiday. But since America had been heading towards a civil war for, well, just about as long as America had been a country, Hale saw an opportunity to unify the fracturing nation. She thought that nationalizing the Thanksgiving holiday around one shared special day would help create a national identity, and thus keep the country together. So, Hale actively campaigned for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
It was through her work that people began looking back to the first Thanksgiving, and myths about the Pilgrims began to form, which included everything from the buckled hats and buckled shoes that the Pilgrims didn’t actually wear, to a whole list of Thanksgiving foods that Pilgrims didn’t actually eat. Among these made up foods where pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a big stuffed turkey, creating a national mythology around Thanksgiving, still wasn’t enough for Hale, who began a letter writing blitz to America’s presidents to convince them to embrace Thanksgiving as a vehicle for national unity.
Reportedly, she wrote to Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, until she finally got to a president who mattered, Abraham Lincoln. Whether he was inspired or just tired from hearing from Hale, in 1863, Lincoln held the first ever national Thanksgiving. While it was a little too late for a national unity, Hale was still dubbed the mother of Thanksgiving. And after 30 years of work, she was finally able to celebrate the holiday.
By the time Thanksgiving became a national holiday, turkey farms were popping up just about everywhere. While many today idealized the Wild West with images of cowboys and their cattle drives, many forgot the far less romanticized turkey drovers and their turkey walks. John Wayne should have made more movies about these guys.
Since refrigeration in the 1880s was still hard to come by and transportation was likewise driven by steam or by horse, the easiest way to get thousands of turkeys from farms to cities was to walk them. Reports from the mid 19th century detailed drovers walking as many as 500 turkeys at a time from remote homesteads to train stations or towns, often having to travel hundreds of miles just to get to where the turkeys were going. As you might expect, this could be a long, slow process.
To motivate these turkeys, the drovers would need to either entice them forward with a steady supply of corn, or guide them from behind by pushing them with a long pole. On a good day, these turkeys could travel about a mile per hour. On a bad day, the birds could become overly clustered and trample each other to death. What’s more, turkey’s propensity for sleeping up in trees often caused all sorts of issues for the towns they passed through. Namely, they would often all gather to sleep on rooftops, causing the roofs to collapse in on themselves. That’s not the kind of turkey stuffing we were picturing.
Despite this chaos, these turkey walks continued on well into the 1900s, only coming to a close with the advent of the gasoline truck and, presumably, driver’s licenses for turkeys. During the same time, turkey hunting exploded in popularity to the point that the birds were nearly hunted to extinction. By the 1900s, there were as few as 30,000 wild turkeys left. A number that has since, with the help of restoration programs and hunting quotas, grown back to a whopping seven million. That’s something to be thankful for.
Up until the 1950s, wild and domesticated turkeys were about the same size. But in order to meet America’s ever-increasing demand for turkey subs, farmers began selectively breeding their birds. According to the USDA, the average farmed turkey in 1929 weighed about 13.2 pounds. By 1967, that number had increased to 18.6 pounds. Fast-forward to today, farmed turkeys now average around 30 pounds, making them over two times as heavy as they were less than a century ago. Are these birds choosing this increase in turkey size has resulted in fewer turkeys needing to be raised, meaning they use up less land and fewer resources?
However, most of the birds are now too big to breed without human intervention, and they often have all sorts of other health issues. Today, Butterball turns out the most turkey meat for consumption, followed by Jennie-O, and Cargill Protein. Each company individually produces around a billion pounds of turkey in any given year, or roughly one week of leftovers at your grandmother’s house.
Of those billion pounds, a large portion comes from the 46 million individual turkeys consumed each year on Thanksgiving Day. Traditionally, starting with Ulysses S. Grant, US presidents would be gifted one of these many turkeys each and every Thanksgiving. By the mid 1900s, this gifting had turned into an all-out ceremony wherein the President would accept the turkey, and the turkey would in turn be taken to the White House kitchens to be eaten that very day. It was a dubious honor. We suspect many of the birds would have preferred a cash prize.
Well, there is some debate over exactly which president was the first to pardon a turkey, the trend didn’t truly start until 1982 when Ronald Reagan sent his presidential turkey to live out the rest of its life on a farm. Reagan continued this practice throughout the rest of his presidency, but he kept it to a casual sendoff, a low-key hang with just a few friends.
It wasn’t until 1989 under the presidency of George H. W. Bush that the first ever official presidential pardon was handed down to a turkey. In the years since, every president has pardoned at least one turkey for the holiday, and it’s become tradition for the turkey to be publicly named. Some recent pardoned birds include Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Jelly, Corn, Butter, Peas, and Drumstick. Nothing says you got lucky like naming a turkey, Drumstick.