Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

Pity the turkey

It is the day before Thanksgiving and by this time cooks across the country are prepping and stuffing turkeys for the big Thanksgiving feast. Approximately 45 million turkeys will have the place of honor at this traditional meal.

But why do we eat turkeys on the day for giving thanks.  Wouldn’t a ham, steak, roast, or fish serve the same purpose? Maybe so, but for most Americans it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the traditional turkey. No one can pin down the exact origin for this traditional dish. There was no official proclamation issued saying that every household on the last Thursday of November should eat turkey when giving thanks; but there are several possible suggestions for the traditional meat.

Taste for turkey goes way back

The English were known to eat roasted goose, swan, and even peacocks. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century was celebrating the harvest festival with baked goose when she received news that the Spanish Armada, on its way to attack England, had sunk. She ordered an extra goose to celebrate the occasion. The colonists carried this tradition to this country but found wild turkeys more plentiful than geese.

It is thought that the settlers of Plymouth Plantation had many different kinds of meat at their first Thanksgiving in 1621 including venison, fowl, lobster, and cod. Deer meat and wild fowl are the only two meats historians know for certain were there. In a letter written by Edward Winslow, he mentions a hunting trip for wild turkey before the meal. The English had a tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving feasts which goes as far back as the 1540s. Gov. William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Plantation, records in his History of Plymouth Plantation that when they arrived in America, sailing from Plymouth in England, they brought the practice of eating turkeys with them.

Practical reasons for turkey

  • Turkeys were always fresh, affordable and large enough to feed a crowd. Turkeys were cheaper than chickens, larger than quail, and easier to hunt than geese.


  • Turkeys could be slaughtered without any economic consequence. Cows were needed for milk and chickens for their eggs—and—roosters are tough and chewy.


  • Turkeys were “ripe for picking” in the fall. The turkeys born in the spring would spend the months eating insects, worms, and acorns which give the bird its exotic taste. By fall they usually weigh about 10 pounds which is just right for feeding a crowd.

If the founding fathers had listened to Ben Franklin we would be revering the turkey rather than eating it. As most school kids know, Franklin wanted the turkey for our national emblem rather than the bald eagle. Franklin said, “The turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America.”

I once knew a woman who raised turkeys and she would disagree with Franklin. She said turkeys were one of the dumbest animals on earth.

Pity the poor turkey for his customary place is now on a platter in the middle of our Thanksgiving table rather that atop a flag pole guarding old glory. Pass the gravy,  please.




Did you know:

– The long fleshy skin that hangs over a turkey’s beak is called a snood.

– The color of a wild turkey’s naked head and neck area can change blue when mating.

– Male turkeys are nicknamed “toms” while females are called “hens.”

– When turkeys reach maturity they can have as many as 3,500 feathers.

– Wild turkeys can run up to 55 miles an hour.

– Turkeys have a 270-degree field vision and have incredible hearing.