February 4, 2023

Why is Turkey a Popular Dish on Thanksgiving?

In 1621, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans came together to celebrate the year’s successful harvest. No one actually knows if there was a turkey on the table at this feast. Experts believe that the likely meats eaten were venison, geese, and duck. So if turkey was never confirmed to be present at the first Thanksgiving, why is it considered the main dish of Thanksgiving dinner? 

One explanation for this could be an impactful myth promoted by Sarah Joseph Hale. Sarah Hale, given the nickname “Godmother of Thanksgiving”, was a writer and activist from New Hampshire. She is mostly known for her popular nursery rhyme, “Mary had a Little Lamb”. Hale fought for 17 years for Thanksgiving to be recognized as a national holiday. She wrote letters to many different presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, who later legalized the holiday in 1863. 

Hale tried to persuade the government to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, writing letters to five presidents, including Abraham Lincoln.

Ashley Rose Young, a historian with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told CNBC, ″Hale thought that the [Pilgrims] and the Wampanoag likely consumed turkey, although we know now that’s not historically accurate. But her vision was powerful, and it really spread the word about turkey to people living outside of New England, and into those other parts of the United States”. Every time she talked about the ideal Thanksgiving dinner, Hale made the turkey the star of the table. In her novel Northwood; a Tale of New England (1827), she described a Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey as the main dish.

Another reason the turkey is such a popular dish could be due to migration from New England. According to Young, “Turkey became the national dish that we eat on Thanksgiving through a decades and century-long process of the regional foods of New England consumed during traditional harvest festivals, making their way through the United States.” As Americans from the east coast and the U.S. south moved westward over time, the dish started to spread throughout the country.

Alexander Hamilton once said, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” This quote could have also contributed to the popularity of these birds on Thanksgiving.

There are also many pragmatic reasons why turkey is commonly eaten on Thanksgiving. First off, it was native to North America and already lived on people’s properties, making it more convenient. Also, turkeys can weigh anywhere from 15 pounds to 20 pounds, which is enough to feed a big family. Unlike chicken or other meats, you would not need more than one of them to feed a lot of people.

Despite the fact that it is unknown if there was a turkey present at the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans, there is no denying that the turkey is star at everyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how it is served!