The Reason We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving

It's no secret that there are certain foods commonly associated with Thanksgiving, like stuffing, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and most notably turkey. But while you might assume these foods became holiday staples because of what was served the first time it was celebrated, the truth is the original spread looked a lot different from how it does now. Back in 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe ate dishes including eel, shellfish, deer, and local produce such as beans and peas. Pumpkin was served — not in the form of pie, but rather as a savory dish that included vinegar and currants. Turkey, however, was not part of the feast at all. Instead, wildfowl stuffed with onions and nuts was served.


It wasn't until the 1800s that turkey became associated with Thanksgiving. In 1827, an influential book, "Northwood" by Sarah Josepha Hale, was published, and it described a Thanksgiving feast that featured turkey. With the popularity of this book came the popularity of serving turkey on Thanksgiving, and eventually the start of a tradition.

Abraham Lincoln also had something to do with why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale didn't just write a book that mentioned eating turkey on Thanksgiving. The renowned writer also spent decades advocating for Thanksgiving's recognition as a national holiday during a time of division in the U.S. She spurred the public to write letters to Congress, eventually leading President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to officially declare the last Thursday of November a national day of thanks.


That year, a live turkey was sent to the White House as a gift for the Lincoln family; however, the president's son, Tad, took it upon himself to adopt the turkey as a pet. The turkey was to be slaughtered for a Christmas meal, but Tad asked his father to spare its life. Lincoln inspiring the tradition of the presidential turkey pardon the same year he declared a national Thanksgiving holiday helped to solidify the bird's place in Thanksgiving tradition.

Why the tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving stuck around

The reason Americans latched onto the idea of eating turkey on Thanksgiving had a lot to do with practicality. Turkeys are a bigger bird, and Thanksgiving involved feeding a crowd. Even before turkey became a Thanksgiving staple, it was common to serve it during any sort of large gathering, not only because it yielded a lot of meat but also because it was widely available. This rationale is as true today as it was in the 1800s.


Though many Americans do eat turkey all year round, it's uncommon to cook the whole bird for a regular weeknight dinner. Even a small one is too large for most families, and on top of that, it takes several hours to make. It's really only on Thanksgiving that people actually have the time to prepare and roast a whole bird. That, combined with the fact that turkey also tastes good, makes it a tradition worth repeating year after year.