A Brief History of the Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey Cake by Regnt Bakery

This week, many of us will sit down to a gluttonous holiday feast with a roasted (or deep-fried) turkey as the centerpiece. But when and how did this bird become a Thanksgiving must-have?

An American Bird

Turkeys are native to the forests of North America. According to History.com, the Mesoamerican peoples of present-day Mexico were the first to domesticate the turkey, and that culinary legacy continues today: Mexican food is the only cuisine that prominently features turkey in its recipes. If you want to really shake up your Thanksgiving meal, turkey moles are especially popular in Oaxaca, with chocolate and pumpkin seeds adding a rich flavor to the meat.

In 1621, American colonists sat down to dine with the Wampanoag Indians at what is often called “the first Thanksgiving.” We know from contemporary records that deer and waterfowl were eaten — but it’s not certain that turkey was on the table. (Sorry, no pumpkin pie, either.) Instead, they may have dined on sobaheg, a Wampanoag dish of stewed corn, roots, beans, squash and various meats. It wasn’t until the 19th century that publications like the Buckeye Cookerie and Godey’s Lady’s Book pushed turkey firmly into the center of the Thanksgiving table.

Of course, the hefty Butterball turkeys we eat today are very different from the birds the Pilgrims ate. Our turkeys are bred to have as much white breast meat as possible (about 70%) and weigh up to 50 lbs., while the older “heritage” breeds are about half the size and have closer to a 50/50 white-to-dark-meat ratio. While the tradition of the presidential “turkey pardon” (frequently traced back to Abraham Lincoln) continues, these top-heavy turkeys often don’t have a very long lifespan, anyway.

Turkey Travels

So how did the North American turkey migrate across the Atlantic and into Victorian England’s holiday meals? According to legend, navigator William Strickland first introduced turkey to his native England in the 16th century. After he made his fortune, a turkey was added to the Strickland family coat of arms. However, turkey was originally seen as a luxury item in Europe; native birds like pheasant and grouse were less expensive and more typically served. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the impoverished Bob Cratchit and his family are about to eat a goose for Christmas dinner when a newly enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge joyfully upgrades them to a turkey.

The Benjamin Franklin Legend

And finally, to put one pernicious Thanksgiving rumor to rest: no, Benjamin Franklin didn’t really want the turkey to be our national bird. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin poked fun at the selected design of the Great Seal of the United States, commenting that the drawing of the eagle looked more like a turkey — and then, continuing the joke, humorously compared the merits and faults of each bird.

However you choose to celebrate (or not), we wish you a happy Thanksgiving!