Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Discover how and why this humble bird became the centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

For many Americans, no Thanksgiving menu is complete without a roast turkey (even if there's also ham or tofurky). Turkey is the top choice for Thanksgiving dinner when we cook a whopping 46 million turkeys, and nearly nine in 10 Americans consume them, according to the National Turkey Federation. It's also a favorite on Easter, when about 19 million turkeys are served, and Christmas, when 22 million turkeys make it onto our menus, but Thanksgiving is the most popular day for consuming the bird.

So when and why did turkeys become the main event on Thanksgiving menus? We talked all things turkey with Beth Forrest, Ph.D., a food historian and professor of liberal arts and food studies at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, to find out why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

thanksgiving turkey in roasting pan
Brie Passano

Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

In 1621, New England Puritans celebrated their harvest with a big feast, as was the English tradition. In those days, Forrest says a minister or governor could declare a Thanksgiving at any time as a way to thank God for something good that had happened. Colonists would spend the day praying in church and then share a big meal.

"We know very little what early colonists ate on these days, but it would have been seasonal. We have no evidence that turkey was an especially symbolic part of the table, but might well include pork, lamb, wild fowl, and game," Forrest says.

During the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin had proposed that turkeys be deemed the "national bird," creating an association between our national identity and turkeys, she says. George Washington called for the first national Thanksgiving in the late 1700s, but it didn't become an annual holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln was president.

"It wasn't until the 1800s that turkey became the symbol of the Thanksgiving table, but still, it was not unusual to also include other fowl," Forrest says.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons released American Cookery ($10, Barnes & Noble), believed to be the first cookbook published in America. Simmons' cookbook included several recipes for indigenous turkey, including boiling it. (Psst...please don't do that if you want to cook the best, most flavorful bird. Stick to roasting, grilling, or safely frying.)

"Another author, Sarah Hale, was a driving force behind the institutionalization of Thanksgiving as an annual, national holiday. She very much saw a roasted turkey as the centerpiece of the celebration, but also included beef, pork, mutton, goose, ducklings, and chicken pie," Forrest says.

Since turkey is one of the few types of meat that we eat that is indigenous to the Americas, it holds a particular role in the American imagination as iconic, she continues. While beef, pork, and lamb were brought to the Americas during the Great Exchange, turkey was here when the colonists arrived. Because of its similarity to chicken and other fowl that the early colonists knew and loved, they added it to their diets early on during their settlement.

Why Turkey Continues to Be a Thanksgiving Tradition

Once Norman Rockwell included turkey as part of the Thanksgiving spread in his 1943 painting, "Freedom From Want," and American magazines began showcasing a turkey on the covers of their November issues, turkeys became cemented in our minds as an icon of the fall holiday.

The use of turkey as a Thanksgiving table centerpiece is also practical. It's easier to find, less fatty, and more affordable than goose—and feeds a crowd.

"As Thanksgiving can be an inclusive celebration where large numbers of people gather together to eat, a large turkey can feed a lot of people. It is a ritual meal, rather than a banal one," Forrest says.

Since it takes hours to roast a bird weighing 8+ pounds, few are willing to invest so much time for a typical dinner.

"Not many of us have several hours to attend to roasting our dinner," Forrest says. But on Thanksgiving, "since a number of people have the day off from work, without other obligations, the structure of the holiday allows for it."

Turkey is also essentially a blank slate for what flavors you want to add to it. "It can really represent not only an American identity but other identities," she says.

Since 1995, there has even been a vegan diet-friendly symbol of the turkey to roast and add to your table: Tofurky. The history of the turkey as part of Thanksgiving is long, but Forrest believes this turkey-inspired faux roast might just be the ultimate symbol of the holiday and America.

"This really conveys the idea that everyone is welcome at the table, which is part of the cornerstone of the very idea of the American Thanksgiving—to put aside one's differences and share a meal," she says.

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