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, like goose or duck, than turkey. And if Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey would be the national bird of the United States, not the bald eagle! So if 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 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, as they 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. It was celebrated across the country at different times and various presidents declared their own Thanksgiving Day, but it wasn’t until President Lincoln was in office that Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863.

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 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.

On a practical level, a turkey is much larger than a chicken or a duck and can easily feed a larger family. If you had to hunt your own dinner wouldn’t you want the most meat possible?! And since turkeys weren’t as useful in the way a cow is useful (provides milk) or a chicken can be useful (eggs), there would be less hesitancy to cook up 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, making them are perfect for being feasted on in fall, by which time they easily weigh 10 pounds (although commercial farms can produce turkeys that weigh anywhere from 15 to 20+ pounds).

Like most traditions, there is more than one reason why eating turkey at Thanksgiving has became the norm. And while most families also serve pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, each family table has its own “normal” menu. What’s on yours!?