History Of The Thanksgiving Turkey
According to the National Turkey Federation, about 90% of Americans have turkey on their Thanksgiving menus -- it's about as American as baseball apparel and apple pie. It's a longstanding tradition, but the big bird was likely not at the first Thanksgiving meal; the Pilgrims probably feasted on venison. So why do so many of us make a big deal about turkey for our holiday meal? We have a few ideas on how it got a permanent spot at the Thanksgiving table. Here's a brief history of the Thanksgiving turkey.
New World Bird
The turkey is native to North America but it was popular in Western Europe long before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. According to Sophie D. Coe in America's First Cuisines, in the early 16th century, Spain created a demand for turkey as a superior substitute for peacocks as banquet birds. Spanish farmers began breeding them and the idea spread to other European countries.
Mary Had A Little Lamb
Charles Dickens may have popularized turkey for holiday meals with a menu of turkey with gravy, stuffing and plum pudding as described in his 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol. However, according to Andrew Beahrs, it was the woman who wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb who may have secured the turkey's spot at the Thanksgiving table. What's commonly known is that author Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for many years to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and it was President Abraham Lincoln who granted her request in 1863. What's not as well known is that as a prolific writer she included in a novel a massive feast with turkey at center stage. This fervor for the fowl and holiday leaked into the minds of other Americans to make it the star of Thanksgiving.
Founding Father Fowl
A couple of our Founding Fathers had a fondness for the great land fowl as well. Benjamin Franklin was known for lobbying to make the turkey our national bird rather than the bald eagle, but there's no indication on how he felt about turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. In addition to Franklin, fellow Founding Father Alexander Hamilton also had a taste for turkey. Even before Sarah Josepha Hale made it her duty to convince presidents that Thanksgiving should be a national holiday Hamilton said, "No citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day," according to Karen Davis's book, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.
The Presidential pardon of the White House turkey goes back not to President Harry Truman who has been falsely credited with the first pardon, but to President John F. Kennedy who, according to History.com said to "We'll just let this one grow," when he was presented with his presidential turkey. Presidential pardons were sporadically noted until the first Bush administration when President George H. W. Bush publicly pardoned a 50-pound turkey on Thanksgiving and made it a formal tradition.