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Why do we eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Tuesday, November 21, 2023   /   by Barb Fessenbecker

Why do we eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Why do we eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

How did turkey get paired with  Thanksgiving? “There was a tradition of serving large wildfowl in medieval Europe, especially peacock, which was skinned, cooked, and resewn into its feathers for presentation,” says Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, specializing in cultural cuisine. 

He goes on to say, “When turkeys from America and guinea fowl from Africa were introduced to Europe in the 17th century, they were served the same way,”  so a whole feathered turkey sticking out of a pie was a preparation familiar to colonial settlers. Tart jelly was often served alongside these birds and cranberries, being local to Massachusetts, was a perfect fit.

Though turkey wasn’t readily available in 1621, annual fall harvest dinners continued as turkey gained popularity as a source of protein. Turkeys were native to the area and plentiful, and were larger than chickens, ducks, and geese, making them economical to serve to a crowd. Also, turkeys didn't provide milk like cattle, or edible eggs, so slaughtering one for its substantial amount of meat just made sense to North American homesteaders.

North American turkeys served from the 1700s up to the 1900s were wild fowl, Albala points out. They were skinnier and very different from the farmed turkeys we're familiar with today.  

Making it Official

In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an official holiday and said for it to be on the last Thursday of November. Roast turkey was nationally recognized as a celebratory feast, but the reason had more to do with fiction than fact.  Sarah Josepha Hale’s popular first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, described a Thanksgiving feast prior to  1827, to have  a large family table filled with roasted turkey, gravy, and vegetables. She later lobbied the President to declare  Thanksgiving as an official holiday. Because of this, she is  often referred to as "the Godmother of Thanksgiving."

On the other side of the Atlantic, Charles Dickens replaced the traditional goose by popularizing a prized Christmas turkey in A Christmas Carol triggering the 19th-century hosts to jump on the turkey ba.


A roasted turkey remains America's Thanksgiving centerpiece, but the rest of our Thanksgiving table is still ever-changing. “Although the traditional parts are often there, people add dishes from their own background,” Albala says.

Turkeys today may be traditionally roasted with seasonal herbs, or deep fried, but alongside it you may find   many other types of sides depending on your ethnic background.  Some may include Italian sausage or a baked pasta dish, or fried rice.

Turkey may remain a Thanksgiving staple for now, but what Americans serve as side dishes is as diversified as America’s multicultural makeup. To many, turkey remains  as the centerpiece of a meal that officially starts the holiday season.

Click here for the full story from Ken Albala:


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