Why do we Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a form of harvest festival, traditionally and prominently celebrated in North America and Canada. A stuffed turkey forms a central part of Thanksgiving celebrations. But, do you know why? Let's find out more on this story.
CelebrationJoy Staff
Last Updated: Feb 22, 2018
Did You Know?

Since 1989, every year in the U.S., one turkey gets presidential pardon and lives out the rest of its life, instead of gracing a Thanksgiving dinner menu. This event takes place during the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation ceremony held every year just before Thanksgiving.

No Thanksgiving dinner feels complete without a turkey! Do you know why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Well, there are a number of interesting stories that are accounted for turkey becoming a dinner staple on this day. It was NOT ALWAYS a part of the traditions. There is pork, there is chicken, and fish, and then, there is turkey. Our great-grandfathers could have chosen anything as the highlight of the dinner celebration, so why turkey? I don't think anyone can point a finger at a specific incident that led to this custom. Seems like a bit of mystery, but, we can try solving the puzzle with these interesting pieces from the history of Thanksgiving.

Turkey and Thanksgiving - How do Both Relate?

Apart from other reasons, the fact remains that a roasted wild turkey makes for a wonderful delicacy to celebrate the festive season with the entire family. According to Benjamin Franklin, turkey is more respectable than the eagle and a true original native of North America. In fact, he wanted to establish turkey as the national bird of America instead of the bald eagle. We wouldn't be eating it today, had Ben Franklin's wish been carried out!

Quick Fact

Turkeys are known to suffer from heart attack or become morbidly scared when alarmed by sudden, loud noises. The noise caused by test flights of Air Force jets, that broke the sound barrier, caused entire fields of turkeys to succumb to heart attack when they flew over these fields.

Every year, 45 million turkeys become Thanksgiving dinner. It is no secret that Americans like their poultry big, fresh, juicy, easily available, and economical. It made the perfect meat to feed a big family for the big Thanksgiving celebration. Also, there are no opportunity costs attached to slaughtering turkeys because they do not provide milk like cows or eggs like hens. They do lay eggs, but those are usually fertilized to produce more turkeys. Chicken and beef were very expensive back then. Processed meats have been commercially available on supermarket shelves only since the last few decades. Rooster's meat is very hard to chew and other meats could be acquired from animals that either had to be hunted or were farm-raised. These formed a part of mundane diet. Hence, turkey was the best option that could be used for its exotic taste as well as the novelty factor of indulging in some variety on a festive occasion.

Legend has it that the Colonists were in the search of a cheap and easily available option that would sufficiently satiate the hunger of a large company. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I was celebrating a harvest festival with peacock meat, wild boar, along with a baked goose. When she was informed that the Spanish Armada, on its way to attack England, had sunk, the Queen was so delighted that she ordered an additional roast goose. Thus, goose became the favorite bird at the harvest celebration in England. This custom was carried over to America by early settlers who replaced roasted goose with roasted turkey, as wild turkeys were more abundantly found (they are not migratory birds) than geese, which are difficult to rear. Thus, a new tradition of serving turkey at Thanksgiving celebrations was born. Some say that eating turkey in affluent families came into practice in England in the 15th century itself, when it was very expensive.

More scientifically speaking, since turkeys are born in the spring season and take about 9 months to mature, feeding on insects, worms, and acorns till maturity (giving the meat its taste), they are perfect for being feasted on in fall, by which time they weigh as much as ten pounds. That is a lot of turkey to make pies, lots of pies! Pies were a staple winter food for American homes and they made all sorts of them.

Quick Fact

June is celebrated as the National Turkey Lovers' Month, to accentuate the virtues of eating turkeys on occasions other than Thanksgiving, citing it as a healthier meat option, with higher levels of proteins and lower fat content.

By 1540s, England had already adopted the turkey as a part of its Thanksgiving feast to celebrate the harvest. The tradition of turkey is rooted in the 'History of Plymouth Plantation', which was written by William Bradford, the Pilgrim Governor. The book states that when, in 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in America, sailing from Plymouth in England, they brought the practice of eating turkeys with them. In 1621, the first Thanksgiving harvest feast was cooked to praise the Lord. They were to dine with Wampanoag Indians, a Native American Indian tribe of hunters that gathered all types of meats, who took them for hunting wild birds (according to the letters of pilgrim Edward Winslow) as per their signed treaty for peaceful co-existence. On the behest of the Pilgrims, turkeys were hunted and served during the feast. But the Governor's documents were lost, having been taken away by the British during the War of Independence. These documents were rediscovered in 1854. After that, the turkey was accepted as an icon of Thanksgiving Day, and eating turkey on this day became a tradition.

Thanks to Charles Dickens, turkey was further popularized through his best-selling book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, which describes the traditional English Christmas feast. Bob Cratchit's family is handed over a turkey from Scrooge (his first act of kindness) as a Christmas present to finish their meal. At the time this book was published, turkeys were easily available in grocery stores but could only be afforded by wealthy families.

Turkey became such a preferred option for holiday shoppers that they soon came to relish it not just for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas. Now, a turkey is associated with American holidays.

Did you know that the other staples of Thanksgiving like cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie also did not feature in the original feast? Well, that's another story. Let's now get back to enjoying our scrumptious turkey and pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving!