Foiled in her attempts to make Yummy Dino Buddies the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table, The Four-Year-Old asked: “Why is turkey such a popular dish at Thanksgiving?”
Turns out you can read 15 Internet articles on the topic and encounter the same 4 theories. But you don’t have to, because I already did. (No, no, no need to thank me. That’s what I’m here for.)
Theory #1: We eat turkey because the British did.
According to this theory, eating turkey isn’t a particularly American tradition at all. The British traditionally ate geese and other large birds at large feasts for practical reasons. They needed a lot of meat to serve a lot of people, and cows were too valuable to waste. The next best thing was to serve very large birds, such as geese, peacocks, and swans. The colonists simply swapped out wild turkey for roast peacock because turkeys were a bit easier to acquire in the New World.
Theory #2: Queen Elizabeth got some good news while eating roast goose, so she was partial to it.
Theory #2 is basically Theory #1 with a royal twist. Queen Elizabeth was enjoying a succulent roast goose at a harvest festival in 1588 when she got word that the invading Spanish Armada had sunk. She was so delighted she ordered a second roast goose to celebrate, cementing the roast goose’s place at the center of the harvest feast table.
“But, Caterpickles,” you say, “Geese aren’t turkeys.” Have no fear, there’s an answer for that. It’s the roasting of a very large bird that’s the main thing. Colonists swapped in turkeys for geese because turkeys were more available at the time. (Although looking at the flocks of geese swarming Jamaica Pond and other Boston area parks today, one can’t help but wonder if it may be time to switch back.)
The theory I understand the least is the one that says we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because Ben Franklin thought it was a much more respectable bird than the bald eagle. This seems like a great argument for making the turkey our national bird, but not such a great one for making the turkey the centerpiece of our holiday table. Unless, of course, the turkey is on that table precisely because it lost out on being our national bird. If that’s the case: Worst. Consolation. Prize. Ever.
Theory #4: Turkeys were available for eating.
When the Thanksgiving tradition took off in America, turkeys met the major feast day criteria. As Michelle Tsai of Slate puts it, “They were fresh, affordable, and big enough to feed a crowd.”
Of all the theories, this one seems the most likely. It makes sense that traditional Thanksgiving meals would be dominated by the foods that were readily available to the first set of folks doing the feasting. And as anyone who has ever driven along the Westwood/Dedham stretch of Route 1A can attest, there are plenty of wild turkeys ambling around Southeastern Massachusetts, even if the geese have since staged an all-out assault on Jamaica Pond.
So why is turkey such a popular dish?
Frankly, I blame Sarah Josepha Hale (that’s right, the lady who wrote the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb). When she wasn’t composing iconic children’s literature she was editing the highly influential magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. For seventeen years, Hale campaigned for a single national Thanksgiving holiday in the pages of her magazine, through letters to state governors, and personal appeals to President Lincoln himself. (At the time, state governors would pick random days in October, November, December or January for Thanksgiving–if the state celebrated Thanksgiving that year at all).
When Abraham Lincoln finally established the fourth Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving, Sarah Hale was ready–as were her readers. While waging her campaign over the years, Sarah Hale had published a series of recipes for turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie in the Lady’s Book, which she billed as the traditional Thanksgiving feast. The magazine’s popularity and influence are attested to by the fact that Hale was successful in convincing an entire nation to adopt traditional Thanksgiving fare that had very little in common with the foods served at the original colonial celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Need a last-minute turkey recipe? You could always try Mrs. Hale’s recipe for Roast Turkey.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.
(Image of the Vegetable Turkey by Steve Ryan via Flickr.)