Thanksgiving is deeply rooted in American history and tradition, with turkey being the iconic centerpiece of the celebratory feast. But have you ever wondered how this large bird became so intrinsically tied to this beloved national holiday? There are interesting historical reasons behind the turkey Thanksgiving tradition that has spanned over centuries.
The History of Thanksgiving and Turkey
The tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving dates back to the early days of American history. Thanksgiving turkey first became cemented as a holiday staple through the culinary habits of New England settlers and Native Americans tribes.
When the pilgrims sailed from England on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they struggled greatly their first winter. They were helped by the native Wampanoag tribe, who taught them effective growing and hunting techniques suited for the harsh New England climate and landscape.
The following autumn, in 1621 after their first successful corn harvest, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag tribe shared a three-day long feast of Thanksgiving. Historians believe that while no menus exist, the feast likely included wild game like deer, ducks, geese, and yes…turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey was native to the area and a readily available wild source of protein.
How the Turkey Became Centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Meal
Fast forward a century and a half later to 1789. As the story goes, George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday after being persuaded by early suffragette and writer Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale famously campaigned for nearly 40 years for Thanksgiving to become a mandated annual national celebration before it came to fruition.
As the newly formed country continued to establish its national identity through shared traditions, the idea of turkey as the Thanksgiving meal centerpiece continued to gain widespread popularity and symbolism.
Reasons the Turkey Tradition Endured
Overall, the tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving endured over time for several key reasons:
Turkeys as Ideal Feast Birds
- Turkeys are large enough to feed a crowd. The average turkey yields 10-12 pounds of meat or more, enough to generously feed about 10 dinner guests. Their ample size makes them well suited for a holiday feast.
Availability and Convenience
- As a domesticated bird, turkeys were widely raised on homesteads and farms since the early days of settlement. Having an easily accessible source of fresh turkeys for the Thanksgiving table was convenient for American families.
- While often pricier than chickens, turkeys tend be more affordable than pricier beef cuts or game meats. This made them a cost-effective showpiece holiday protein.
- As the turkey became so customary for Thanksgiving meals, they also took on broader symbolism. Their corn-fattened heft conjured visions of abundance and gratitude for the fall harvest. Their size represented togetherness and community at the table.
Modern-Day Popularity of Thanksgiving Turkey
Today, it’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving dinner without picturing a golden brown turkey first and foremost as the honorary main dish.
The outstanding popularity of turkey for present-day Thanksgiving celebrations is clear from various turkey consumption statistics tallied each November:
- Upwards of 46 million turkeys are cooked for Thanksgiving meals annually as reported by the National Turkey Federation.
- An estimated 88% of Americans polled by the National Chicken Council eat turkey during the Thanksgiving holiday.
- The average weight purchased per turkey is 16 pounds according to 2021 statistics by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
- Thanksgiving accounts for about 241 million pounds of turkey produced in the U.S.
Regional Preferences and Preparation Methods
While turkey remains the clear favorite protein, regional differences exist in just how Americans choose to cook their Thanksgiving turkey.
In the South, deep-fried turkey has grown tremendously in popularity. Other areas like the Midwest and Northeast favor more traditional roast turkey flavors. Cajun spiced, smoked, grilled or glazed turkeys also make appearances on tables depending on local tastes.
Regardless of regional preparation differences, when all is said and done, turkey in some shape or form makes it onto almost 9 out of 10 American Thanksgiving dinner tables.
Will Alternatives Replace Turkey?
Given the undisputed dominance of turkey for Thanksgiving through modern times, is it possible any alternatives could dethrone and replace it someday?
Newer Main Dish Contenders
A few less traditional main dish ideas that have gradually grown more commonplace for Thanksgiving meals over recent years include:
- Bone-in ham or spiral sliced ham
- Prime rib
- Cornish game hens
- Tofurky or other vegetarian roasts
Despite gaining some traction, none of these alternatives so far appear poised to overtake turkey in popularity anytime soon however. Turkey still outranks these options combined by a very wide margin according to national surveys.
The Staying Power of Turkey
Turkey on Thanksgiving endures as the iconic centerpiece dish because it holds such strong historical and nostalgic ties for many American families for this particular holiday. For most home cooks, serving turkey on the table simply feels like Thanksgiving tradition.
As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – turkey will likely retain its hallowed spot on the plates of most households for generations to come on Thanksgiving day.
In summary, enjoying turkey on Thanksgiving day became custom because wild turkeys were abundant and served at some of the first Thanksgiving feasts held by the Pilgrims and Native Americans. As an accessible protein source ideal for feeding crowds, the tradition of turkey as the centerpiece Thanksgiving fare endured over centuries and became interwoven into the cultural fabric of the holiday. The turkey’s strong symbolic ties of bounty and togetherness continue to resonate with American families today, solidifying its ongoing popularity at the Thanksgiving table for the foreseeable future.