On Thanksgiving, most of us will sit down to feast on a turkey dinner. The bird also shows up on the table at Christmas. How did we end up with the tradition of eating turkeys during the holidays?
They were fresh, affordable, and big enough to feed a crowd. Americans have long preferred large poultry for celebrations because the birds could be slaughtered without a huge economic sacrifice. Cows were more useful alive than dead, and commercial beef wasn’t widely available until the late 19th century. Chicken was more highly regarded than it is today, but rooster meat was tough, and hens were valuable as long as they laid eggs. Venison would have been another option, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, though it would have required you to hunt for your Thanksgiving meal. There was plenty of ham or brined pork around, but it wasn’t considered fit for special occasions. Eating turkey was also in keeping with British holiday customs that had been imported to the New World.
Among the big birds, turkey was ideal for a fall feast. Turkeys born in the spring would spend about seven months eating insects and worms on the farm, growing to about 10 pounds by Thanksgiving. They were cheaper than geese, which were more difficult to raise, and cheaper by the pound than chickens. Cost was an important factor for holiday shoppers, because people weren’t necessarily preparing just one meal; Thanksgiving was the time to bake meat and other types of pies that could last through the winter. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Old-Town Folks, described making fruit pies at Thanksgiving “by forties and fifties and hundreds, and made of everything on the earth and under the earth.” (The British once served geese, swans, and even peacocks on special occasions, but they came to prefer turkey after it was first introduced to England in about 1540. Swans, because of their diet, would taste fishy unless they were fed wheat for weeks before slaughter.)
By 1863, when Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, turkeys had taken center stage at Thanksgiving. (Americans had started holding unofficial Thanksgiving dinners in the previous century.) And while the bird had already been associated with Christmas, the turkey also gained iconic status as a yuletide meal around the same time. The classic menu of turkey with gravy, stuffing, and plum pudding was popularized by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843 and widely read in the United States. Some culinary historians believe Scrooge’s gift of a Christmas turkey to the Cratchit family helped cement the turkey’s place at the center of the holiday meal for both modest and affluent households. Among the wealthy, however, this changed around the turn of the 20th century as the birds became associated with the working class and poor immigrants, who often received turkeys from charities during the holidays. Americans continued to serve Thanksgiving turkey, but at Christmas, those who could afford it turned to game and beef.
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Explainer thanks Kathleen Fitzgerald, author of America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, Cathy Kaufman of the Institute for Culinary Education, and Andrew Smith, author of The Turkey: An American Story.