Why do we eat turkey at Thanksgiving? You may not have learned this in elementary school, but at the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims were probably eating more wildfowl. More like goose or duck, than turkey. If Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey would be the national bird of the United States, not the bald eagle! So if the turkey wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving and it almost became our national bird, how did the turkey come to grace every family table on Thanksgiving?
One theory is that Queen Elizabeth was feasting on roast goose during a harvest festival. When the news was delivered to her that the Spanish Armada had sunk on its way to attack England, the queen was so pleased that she order a second goose to celebrate the news. Thus, the goose became the favored bird to dine on during harvest time in England. Once the Pilgrims arrived (and survived that first winter), roasted turkey eventually replaced the roast goose as the season’s celebratory cuisine. Turkeys were more abundant and easier to find than geese.
Apparently, Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that no “citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” Even though he didn’t live to see Thanksgiving become a national holiday. Celebrated across the country at different times, because various presidents declared their own Thanksgiving days. But it wasn’t until President Lincoln was in office that Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863.
The actual celebration of Thanksgiving dates back (officially, at least) to 1777 when an act of the Continental Congress declared it a real holiday. It was during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, though, that Thanksgiving was declared a nationwide holiday again. That was in 1863, and really, the timing was perfect. The nation had never suffered such a divide as it did with the Civil War, and this was a way to remind everyone of all that they had to be grateful for.
Three years earlier, just after his election, Lincoln had started the tradition with an unofficial Thanksgiving dinner that featured roast turkey, reportedly his favorite meal. By 1864, organizations across the country had picked up the cause of making sure that soldiers had all the trimmings and fixings to celebrate Thanksgiving no matter where they were, and that huge project involved (you guessed it!) collecting turkeys for them.
The Lincoln family is also credited with starting the tradition of issuing a presidential pardon for a most fortunate turkey (even though that historically happened around Christmastime). It’s all helped to cement the turkey in its iconic place as a Thanksgiving meal.
William Bradford, the governor at the first Thanksgiving, wrote in his diary that “our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. …And besides waterfowl, there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” Those diaries were lost and not rediscovered until 1856. But when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, proponents of the holiday promoted turkey as the meal’s centerpiece.
Benjamin Franklin is sometimes said to have wanted to make the turkey the national bird. The story begins on July 4, 1776, when Congress appointed a committee to come up with a national symbol for the Great Seal of the United States. Numerous ideas were rejected until someone finally suggested a bald eagle.
Franklin did not approve. The eagle, he said, was an “animal of bad character,” noting in jest that the turkey was a “much more respectable bird.” It was also appropriate, he thought, that the national symbol be a uniquely American bird like the turkey. There is no evidence, however, that he ever intended his remarks to be taken seriously.
Practically, a turkey is much larger than a chicken or a duck and can easily feed a large family. If you had to hunt your own dinner wouldn’t you want the most meat possible?! Since turkeys weren’t as useful as a cow (milk) or chicken (eggs), there was less hesitancy to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner! A 2007 piece in Slate also pointed out that the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843 may have helped the turkey’s cause as a holiday delicacy when Scrooge sends the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey.
Biologically speaking, turkeys are born in the spring season and take about 9 months to mature. The perfect feasting size in the fall because they can easily weigh 10 pounds. Although commercially produced turkeys can weigh anywhere from 15 to 20+ pounds.
So why do we eat turkey at Thanksgiving? Like most traditions, there is more than one reason why eating turkey at Thanksgiving has become the norm. While most families also serve pumpkin pie and other dishes too, each family table has its own unique menu. What’s on yours!?