Thanksgiving Is Also Called Turkey Day! Here Is Why
Image Credit: Stuffed turkey, Unsplash

The mention of Thanksgiving conjures up images of a roasted turkey in the centre of the table. It is undeniably the most popular entree at a Thanksgiving dinner. However, many people would be shocked to learn that Thanksgiving is also referred to as "Turkey Day" in informal contexts. The turkey grew in popularity as Thanksgiving Day rose in prominence during the 1800s. By 1857, the turkey had become a staple of New England cuisine. 

"No citizen of the United States should abstain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day," declared Alexander Hamilton, while Benjamin Franklin saw the wild turkey as an American icon. Now the entire world is aware that Thanksgiving is an American festival in which people eat roasted turkey along with festive delicacies. 

Contemporary Thanksgiving dinner table, Image Source: Pexels

But its origins have roots in 1621 when Plymouth settlers and Native Americans (Wampanoag tribe) assembled for a three-day feast to commemorate the settlers' first successful crop. For the grand festive food spread, about 100 people gathered. Hold your breath before picturing a roasted turkey being devoured. According to historians, turkey was not on the inaugural Thanksgiving menu. The meal is said to include duck, venison, geese, eel, oysters, lobster, and fish. So, where did the turkey come from? Well, you may find some clues here!

Wild turkey, the original choice

The farmed turkey consumed today differs considerably from the wild turkeys that emerged roughly 5 million years ago in the Americas. There are still at least five subspecies in 48 states, Mexico and Canada. Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo is nearly extinct in southern Mexico now. The Spanish brought it to Europe from Mexico in the early 16th century. Its descendants later returned to the United States. Commercial turkey varieties developed in the twentieth century from these European progenitors.

Small White to Broad Breasted turkey

Roasted turkey for Thanksgiving, Image Source: Pexels

There arrived a phase with surging demand and a growing market for a small, ideally weighing 8-15 pound bird with more white meat and no dark feathers. The USDA created the Beltsville Small White turkey to meet this need at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland. It was commercially released in 1947 and reigned the market for two decades. The Small White turkey was displaced by the Broad Breasted White turkey, bred exclusively for gala feasts like Thanksgiving.

Turkey as Presidential present

Thanksgiving dinner setup, Image Source: Pexels

American culture is profoundly embedded with the tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving. Many people may be surprised to learn that the National Turkey Federation has presented a live turkey to the President of the United States before each Thanksgiving since 1947. Originally, these turkeys were slaughtered and eaten for the President's Thanksgiving supper. Since 1989, the presented turkeys have been given a faux pardon and sent to a park to live out the rest of their usually brief natural lives.