On the fourth Thursday of November each year, Americans gather with their families and friends to enjoy a feast. The centerpiece of the meal is typically a beautiful, golden turkey surrounded with yams and pumpkin-flavored dishes. While the trappings are fall staples, the choice of turkey as the protein isn’t as obvious. So, why is the turkey the chosen meat for this holiday?
Around 88% of all Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving each year; a tradition attributed to Alexander Hamilton’s proclamation, “No citizen of the United States should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” In truth, it was a long process of migrants from New England spreading their tradition of eating turkey to the rest of the United States. Logical reasons also helped the adoption; turkeys are plump in late November as they prepare for winter, meaning their size could feed tens of people, and they were wild, thus readily available for hunting.
Thanksgiving is frequently referred to as “Turkey Day” by many Americans. For most, it would be unthinkable to celebrate the holiday without a debate over white versus dark meat or whether this is the year to deep fry the bird. It was quite the journey for the turkey to get such prominence in American culture, and its importance is not likely to diminish soon.
The First Thanksgiving
Despite their place at the table in modern celebrations of Thanksgiving, turkeys were unlikely to have been part of the first Thanksgiving, held in Plymouth during 1621. Instead, venison, duck, and perhaps geese were on the menu. Further, shellfish was plentiful in New England at the time, so it was a liker dish than turkey too. Writings by William Bradford in 1643 about this historical event mentioned wildfowl, and this may have been mistranslated to turkey over the years.
Turkeys in the United States
There is evidence of turkeys on the North American continent as far back as 20 million years ago; they evolved here along with their common fowl ancestors, such as the pheasant or goose. While there are still wild turkeys, the first of the species were domesticated around 2,000 years ago.
We have the Mayans to thank for migrating the domesticated turkey to North America. They brought turkeys and other big birds with them in the 16th century. Currently, there are only two remaining turkey species (with other species known to have been lost according to the fossil record). Other than the North American wild and domesticated turkey, there is also the ocellated turkey of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The latter is identifiable due to the eye-shaped (ocelli) spots on their feathers.
After their introduction, the wild turkey population thrived to around 10 million, but by the early 1900s, turkey populations were dwindling to near extinction levels. It’s believed the cause was population growth claiming their habitat and overhunting. The situation remained dire until the 1940s when turkeys inhabited only a few states. In recent decades, a concentered effort by conservationists has swelled the wild turkey population back to 7 million, and they can be found in 49 states (Alaska is the exception).
Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln
Benjamin Franklin once wrote comparing the bald eagle to the turkey, stating the latter had better attributes. However, he did not suggest that the turkey be a national symbol, a common myth. Instead, he wrote about turkey’s courage and criticized the bald eagle for poor moral character and the dishonesty in which it survived by being “too lazy to fish for himself.” The enduing effect, though, was Franklin’s statement raised the turkey’s profile in the United States, adding to its importance in the National culture.
Another Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, had a crucial part in the turkey becoming the national dish of Thanksgiving. It is widely stated that he once said, “No citizen of the United States should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” His words marked a change in national attitude, promoting the turkey as a must-have for any respectable Thanksgiving celebration. As the US expanded West, these North Eastern tradition standards migrated with them, helping the turkey dinner remain a staple of American national culture.
Finally, President Abraham Lincoln ensured Thanksgiving would remain for years to come. In 1863, he proclaimed the last Thursday in November (it’s since changed to the fourth Thursday) would be a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Until then, Thanksgiving hadn’t had the official status that it has now – at times, it wasn’t always celebrated depending on hardships throughout the country. Congress further solidified the holiday’s importance in 1885, when they passed the bill making Thanksgiving a paid federal holiday.
Between these three men, Thanksgiving and turkey became synonymous in American society and an annual national holiday.
Turkeys are Big Business
With the turkeys’ place at the Thanksgiving table assured, turkey farmers seized the opportunity to build successful businesses. In 2020, 46 million turkeys were consumed in the United States around Thanksgiving – that is a turkey for every seventh person! In the same year, the annual turkey farming industry was worth $5.19 billion, producing 5.74 billion pounds of meat. The largest raiser of turkeys is Minnesota, responsible for producing 40 million of the nation’s 224 million turkeys a year. The industry employs around 23,000 people and is considered an economic stimulant in rural America.
While nearly 50% of all turkey was eaten around Thanksgiving in 1970, the holiday season now accounts for only 29% of sales. The trend continues as turkey meat is seen as a healthier option compared to beef and pork. The result is turkey farming is now a year-round business and not the seasonal enterprise it once was.
7 Fun Turkey Facts
There’s a lot more to turkeys than their meat and ability to feed a few families at once. This Thanksgiving, consider the beauty of the animal you are about to eat and be thankful for its place at your table.
- They are susceptible and social animals. Their social bonds are affectionate and long-lasting.
- They can speak! Well, sort of. Turkeys have more than 20 distinct vocalizations or calls that other turkeys understand. Each turkey has a unique voice, so they recognize each other too. Further, males have a specific gobble that can be heard up to a mile away.
- Wild turkeys can fly; domesticated ones are generally too fat to do so. They can hit a top speed of 55 mph, but only over very short distances.
- They have 5,000 – 6,000 feathers that males puff up to attract a female.
- They have exceptional eyesight with a 270-degree field of view that can see objects up to 100 yards away. They also have more color cones in their eyes than humans, so they perceive color better than us and can see the ultraviolet spectrum.
- Despite their size, turkeys roost overnight in trees.
- The average size of a wild turkey is 2.5-10 kg / 5.5-22 lbs. The average mass of a domesticated turkey is 10-20 kg / 22- 44 lbs. The heaviest turkey ever raised was 86 lbs.
The journey for Thanksgiving to become “turkey day” wasn’t straightforward. Indeed, it seems a few comments by upper statemen, combined with early Americans’ love for hunting, gave the turkey it places as the centerpiece of the holiday’s feast. These days, turkeys are big business and a staple of the American diet all year round. It seems the turkey’s place at the Thanksgiving table is assured for many years to come.