Thanksgiving is as American as it gets. It’s up there with the Fourth of July, the national anthem and cheese that comes in cans.
And no Thanksgiving is complete without our favorite poultry bird, Meleagris: the turkey. It’s the essential part of the family dinner, along with overeating and dodging awkward questions from your relatives. We make hand turkeys in elementary school (and in college, if you’re like me) and trade recipe tips with the neighbors.
How did America come to associate this bird so strongly with Thanksgiving? The answer, of course, lies in our history.
For starters, turkey probably wasn’t the star dish on the menu at the so-called, happy-sappy “First Thanksgiving” between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in Plymouth. While, according to an account by English diplomat Edward Winslow, wild turkeys were served, people also chowed down on venison, waterfowl (most likely ducks and geese), ham, ox, eels, shellfish, lobster and the now-extinct passenger pigeon. (The jury is still out on partridges in pear trees.)
Turkey remained a staple of colonial diets. The bird the Puritans most likely hunted is known today as the Eastern wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, or the forest turkey. Turkeys have been found throughout North America, from Mexico to Canada to Florida, though populations have been in decline due to deforestation. (Fun fact: Turkeys and chickens are more closely related to dinosaurs than to most other birds.)
In 1784, Founding Father Benjamin “Fart Proudly” Franklin suggested in a letter to his daughter that the United States’ national bird be the turkey instead of the bald eagle, citing that the turkey was “a much more respectable Bird” and “a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.”
Though this was probably a little facetious, Franklin did have a point. Wild turkeys can be aggressive, and have been known to attack cars, people, pets and the elderly. So, yeah; don’t wear a red coat around turkeys.
Courage aside, turkeys started being more strongly associated with Thanksgiving around the 1860s, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. People wanted to feel fancy, so they served the bulkier, gamier turkey for special occasions, instead of the standard “Sunday Chicken.” It doesn’t hurt that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton declared, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
To date, nearly 50 million turkeys are eaten each year for Thanksgiving in America—baked, boiled, deep-fried, you name it. It’s about 375,000 tons of turkey—enough to feed everyone in the States two pounds each. That’s a lot of leftovers!
Also, for those of you wondering: Which came first, Turkey or the turkey?
Turkey (which means “Turk-land,” originating from the Turkish word for “strength”) has been called by its modern name since the 1300s. The common name for turkeys, on the other hand, really only cropped up in the English language around the 16th century. The name actually came from a mix-up: When colonists occupying the east coast saw wild turkeys, they took to calling them “turkey-hens” due to their resemblance to native Turkish guinea fowls. In the end, their names were just shortened to “turkey.”
There. Now you can win that bet with your Uncle Mike. Don’t bother thanking me.
On that note, have a very happy (and very weird) Thanksgiving!
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.