Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving? The Answer Might Surprise You

Another protein used to be the more popular choice.


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Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? It’s a question many of us may be asking ourselves as we lug a 15-pound bird home and into our fridge; as we baste and temperature check ad infinitum; and as we wait for the steamy poultry to cool so we can commence our annual carving battle. Why are we doing this? Tradition and festivity, mostly, but turkey wasn’t always at the heart of the holiday table.

Back in 1621, when pilgrims from England celebrated their first Thanksgiving, an autumnal feast, the tablescape in Plymouth, Mass., looked quite different. And, according to The Smithsonian, very little is recorded about this multi-day feast, so a lot of our history is conjecture on seasonal culinary options, plus mythology. Venison was likely the protein of choice, provided by deer hunters from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe—indigenous people who lived in the region for roughly 10,000 years before the Mayflower landed. The Wampanoag farmed and foraged, and ate predominantly beans, corn, roots, and berries, plus eggs, fish, shellfish, and some meat, like hunted deer and wild birds. 

So where did the turkey come from? “There was a tradition of serving large wild fowl in medieval Europe, especially peacock, which was skinned, cooked, and resewn into its feathers for presentation,” says Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific. “When turkeys from America and Guinea Fowl from Africa were introduced [to America] in the 17th century, they were served the same way.” Even turkey would be whole and feathered sticking out of a pie, the familiar preparation for settlers. Tart jelly was often served alongside these birds, with cranberries being local to Massachusetts. 

Though turkey wasn’t likely present in 1621, autumnal harvest dinners continued, and turkey was a popular source of protein. It was indigenous to the area, and larger than chicken, duck, or geese, making it economical to serve to an entire group. Plus, slaughtering a turkey just made sense for homesteaders—it wasn’t providing milk like cattle, nor edible eggs, but yielded a lot of meat and was prominent in North America.

Turkeys served in the 1700s and later, up to the 1900s, were wild fowl—North American species that are scrawnier, and very different from the turkey we are familiar with today, often cultivated and raised to be mostly breast meat, Albala points out.

In 1870, by the time Thanksgiving became an official national holiday on the last Thursday of November, roast turkey was nationally recognized as a celebratory feast. Much of it, however, due to mythology and pop culture. Sarah Josepha Hale’s popular first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, described a Thanksgiving feast circa 1827, replete with a large family table topped with roasted turkey, gravy, and vegetables. Across the pond, Charles Dickens popularized a prized Christmas turkey in A Christmas Carol, replacing the traditional goose with a more iconic bird. Just like home cooks riff on TikTok trends today, 19th-century hosts were eager to jump on the turkey train.

Now, turkey is the essential Thanksgiving centerpiece, but the Thanksgiving table has still evolved. “Although the traditional parts are often there, people add dishes from their own background,” Albala says. Turkey may be traditionally roasted with autumnal herbs, or deep-fried in Cajun seasoning, or shellacked like a Peking duck. Italian sausage or baked pasta dishes may be served on the side, or perhaps biryani or fried rice, or potato kugel or kimchi, or rice and beans, or really, anything. Turkey may be a mainstay for the foreseeable future, but what goes along with it is as pliable as America’s multicultural makeup.

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