START A PETITION 25,136,189 members: the world's largest community for good
567,261 people care about Real Food

Why Do We Eat Turkey for Thanksgiving?

  • by
  • November 22, 2012
  • 5:00 am
Why Do We Eat Turkey for Thanksgiving?

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 “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

Read more: , , , , ,

Photo from Thinkstock

quick poll

vote now!

Loading poll...

have you shared this story yet?

some of the best people we know are doing it


+ add your own
11:48AM PST on Feb 21, 2013

thanks.... i love thanksgiving (and turkey gravy!)

2:40PM PST on Dec 9, 2012

thanks for sharing

3:44AM PST on Nov 29, 2012

Why, what else feeds 20 people (which is what the average American family weighs)? And I have to disagree with you, to most Americans it's not Thanksgiving, it's T(urkey)-day.

10:01AM PST on Nov 28, 2012

I always pile my plate with turkey and mashies...NO GRAVY

8:01AM PST on Nov 28, 2012

...WHO are "WE"...??? -I NEVER had turkey all my life!

9:58AM PST on Nov 27, 2012


10:53PM PST on Nov 26, 2012

Love to eat turkey. Love to eat poultry. Love to eat. I used to raise turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, (and a whole lot of other animals), and there's something about home-raised, home butchered meat that is superior to anything I've ever gotten out of a supermarket. I suppose this article explains why.

9:07PM PST on Nov 26, 2012

wow! 78% surveyed said they would not be eating turkey for thanksgiving...i'm impressed! i wish that figure represented more of the US. i, for one, didn't have turkey. i've never had turkey for a single thanksgiving in all my 41 years.

8:27PM PST on Nov 26, 2012

Thanks for the info.

1:53PM PST on Nov 26, 2012


add your comment

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

ads keep care2 free

Recent Comments from Causes

Very sad, shouldn't have happened, but not deliberate. I'd expect he feels crushing remorse and will…

Most shootings in America are part of the scheme to disarm America by portraying mass shootings using…

"Is the United States Obsessed with Guns?" Well, yes and no. Apparently there are just as many in…

Story idea? Want to blog? Contact the editors!
ads keep care2 free

more from causes

Select names from your address book   |   Help

We hate spam. We do not sell or share the email addresses you provide.