Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

If your answer is “because the Pilgrims ate turkey on Thanksgiving”, you may be mistaken! Wild turkeys were common in the area around Plymouth in 1621, but the most widely accepted description of the first thanksgiving meal, coming from Edward Winslow, who was actually there, doesn’t mention turkey. He does mention wild fowl, though historians think that referred to ducks and geese.

This joint feast between pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians is generally considered the “first” Thanksgiving, although the participants didn’t seem to consider it a special milestone. European harvest festivals were commonplace, and many pilgrims brought that tradition with them to New England.

It wasn’t until 1863, however, that Thanksgiving was first declared a national holiday by then-president Abraham Lincoln*. And by then, turkey had popularly become the main course for Americans celebrating the holiday. Practical reasons include:

  • It’s a bigger bird than, say, a chicken, so it feeds more people
  • It doesn’t serve another food purpose (like laying eggs)
  • It wasn’t so common that it wasn’t suited for a special occasion
  • It’s plentiful and inexpensive

While many Americans add ham to their Thanksgiving feast, and some even prefer ham over turkey, the debate over which is most popular is ongoing. And for those who just can’t decide, you can always get a “turkey ham”. No joke.

  • President George Washington set a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” for November 26, 1789, but the actual date for an annual Thanksgiving celebration moved around a bit until 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a resolution establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving from the crew at TutorUp!