Why Do We Eat Turkey for Thanksgiving?

Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 Favorite. It was originally published on November 22, 2012. Enjoy.

For that first Thanksgiving in 1621, Governor William Bradford sent “four men fowling” to provide for the feast for which a few dozen pilgrims and some hundred Native Americans would gather. What exactly those men came back with is anyone’s guess — ducks, geese, maybe a wild turkey or two. We do know that there were deer, cod, clams and lobsters on the menu that day, but there may not have been any turkey.

Regardless, wild turkey, native to North America, was a major food source for both Native Americans and pilgrims and was well regarded in those early days. Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to take the place of the bald eagle as the country’s national bird. The eagle, he wrote in a letter to his daughter in 1784, “is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly… The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America… He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

It’s not known exactly when turkey became the customary centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, but it must have been at least by 1941, ventures Julia Reed writing for Newsweek, when FDR proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November a national holiday of Thanksgiving. But Roosevelt was already the third of three presidents to issue a proclamation recognizing the holiday, after George Washington in 1789 and Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

The partaking of turkey on Thanksgiving, according to Wikipedia, preceded Lincoln, with Alexander Hamilton having once declared that no “Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” By the late 19th century, the phrase “Turkey Day” had become synonymous with Thanksgiving.

Last year, somewhere between 250 and 270 million turkeys were raised. Approximately 46 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter, according to EatTurkey.com. “Aggressive marketing by turkey farmers by advertising and availability of parts rather than the necessity of cooking a whole bird,” according to one source, has doubled turkey consumption in America in the past 25 years, with 74 percent used in sliced turkey sandwiches.

“Until about the middle of the last century, most of the turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving would have been what we now call ‘heritage breeds,’” writes Reed in Newsweek, “including the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, White Holland, Naragansett, and Jersey Buff varieties. These turkeys are gorgeous, hardy creatures, developed in Europe and America over hundreds of years and rich in flavor.”

Today, more than 99 percent of the turkeys sold in America come from factory farms. These birds, Reed explains,

are bred to be so literally broad-breasted that by the time they are 8 weeks old, they are too fat to walk, much less procreate — every Broad-Breasted White on the market is the product of artificial insemination. They are kept in giant barns, given antibiotics to prevent disease, and fed constantly so that they reach maturity in almost half the time it takes a heritage turkey. The result is bland, mushy meat that we have come to equate with tenderness, but in reality processors inject the dressed birds with saline solutions and vegetable oils to improve “mouth feel” and keep the oversize breasts from drying out.

For many of us, Thanksgiving isn’t really about eating turkey, anyway, and we’ve taken to dousing it in gravy, deep-frying it and overlaying it with sides in order to make it more palatable. Instead, Thanksgiving is about what the turkey has come to signify — a feast shared with family and friends and a time to be thankful for what we have. Millions of turkeys will be cooked up today in deference to tradition more than anything else. But it’s a tradition that we would do well to reconsider.


Related Stories:

Abuse at Butterball Turkey Factory Farm

‘Turkey Talk Tips’ for a Smooth Thanksgiving

Cargill Recalls Ground Turkey, Again

Photo from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V10 months ago

thanks for the article.

Mark Donners
Mark D2 years ago

Gerald L. Not only are you not "emotionally bound to animals", you exhibit the typical evil anti life attitude which is inbred into most of humanity. Since all life is not important to you (a member of the most inferior species), if follows that I am not "emotionally bound" to help you in any way when you are in need or in trouble

Mark Donners
Mark D2 years ago

I have no respect for any of the "pilgrims" or for that matter any of the diseased hordes of European invaders. They were murderers, pillagers, destroyers and became a global curse. Their rabid arrogant colonialism is the reason why the Earth is in a horrible, dying state today. At least the Indians respected nature and their environment. The white curse massacred them and stole the lands they were caretakers of.

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha R2 years ago


Chad Johnson
Chad Johnson2 years ago

(Worldwatch Institute).
• Cows produce about 150 billion gallons of methane per day.
• Forty-five percent of the Earth’s land mass is used for animal agriculture.
• Animal agriculture is directly responsible for 91 percent of Amazon rain-forest destruction.
• 136 million acres of the rain forest have been cleared for cattle grazing and growing feed crops.
• Animal agriculture is the number one cause of species extinction, ocean “dead zones,” water pollution, and deforestation.
There are credible sources for all of this information if you care to do the research.

Chad Johnson
Chad Johnson2 years ago

Gerald L:
According to you, the size of turkeys has not changed from 1970 until today. Nice argument, if not absolutely impossible to believe. You obviously do not spend regular time with turkeys bred within today's food system.
You are probably right, deer are responsible for much human death and problems. However, does it make sense to kill 100,000 predators in the U.S., then kill many of the deer off that the predators would have killed? I think that nature was fine until we stepped in and started playing the role of "manager" by killing with guns.
You are probably also right that wildlife feces may at times be harmful to human health; however, I was speaking of the big picture and not something that someone has observed on an occasion or two. Here is what I mean:
• There are 7 billion people on the planet and 70 billion animals used for food.
• Here is a comparison of what each consumes:
• Humans: 5.2 billion gallons of water and 21 billion pounds of food. Cows: 45 billion gallons of water and 135 billion pounds of food.
• Animal agriculture uses 55 percent of the water in the U.S.
• If you follow California’s recommendations for saving water, you’ll save 47 gallons a day.
- But it takes 660 gallons of water to produce 1/4 pound of hamburger meat.
• Worldwide, the meat and dairy industries use 30 percent of our fresh water every day.
• Animal agriculture is the source of 51 percent of all greenhouse gasses (Wor

Ana MESNER2 years ago

Thank you for posting

Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago


Anne F.
Anne F2 years ago

factory raising of creatures seems so lame....top heavy turkeys that cannot reproduce. Let's look for heritage breed, raised humanely.

Cynthia no frwd B.
cynthia l2 years ago

okay thanks