Why is Turkey a Traditional Thanksgiving Dish?

The side dishes may differ from one household to another. Some people have mashed potatoes and gravy, while others prefer sweet potato pie. However, in most American homes, there’s one guest that is always invited to the Thanksgiving table every year – the turkey!

The origin of the Thanksgiving turkey remains a mystery. No one knows exactly how this particular bird became a staple of the November feast, but historians have proposed a few different theories.

Based on letters and records kept by early American settlers, it is known that beef and fowl were part of the menu when the colonists shared a meal with the Wampanoag Indians. This historic meal later became known as the first Thanksgiving.

Although it is uncertain which types of fowl were served that day, a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions a turkey hunting trip prior to the meal.

Another theory links the Thanksgiving turkey to the Queen of England. In the 16th century, a fleet of Spanish ships sank while en route to attack England.

According to legend, Queen Elizabeth received this news while having dinner and was so delighted that she ordered another goose to be served. Some historians believe that the early settlers were inspired by the queen’s actions and decided to roast a turkey instead of a goose.

The wild turkey is a native bird of North America. Consequently, Benjamin Franklin argued that the turkey would be a more fitting national bird for the United States than the bald eagle.

However, not everyone agreed with Franklin, and the bald eagle became the national emblem of the United States in 1782. While the bald eagle may be America’s bird for 364 days a year, the turkey has one day dedicated solely to itself – Thanksgiving.

Here are some interesting turkey facts that might surprise you:

  • Wild turkeys are capable of flying, but domesticated turkeys cannot.
  • Turkeys can run at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.
  • The long, loose skin hanging down from a turkey’s neck is known as a “wattle.”

Give it a Try

Feeling hungry? We are too! Get a friend or family member to help you explore the following activities:

  • What’s one of the best things about having turkey for Thanksgiving? Leftovers! After a grand Thanksgiving feast, most families enjoy several days’ worth of leftovers. To make the most of your turkey leftovers, try out these fun recipes: + Turkey Enchiladas + Turkey Hash + Moo Shu Turkey + BBQ Turkey Pizza
  • Did you know that it’s a tradition for the President of the United States to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey each year? Visit The White House Historical Association website to learn all about the tradition of Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey. Share what you discover about this fun tradition with a friend or family member!
  • Thanksgiving is often a time for reflection on what we are grateful for. Take a moment to write a list of things you are thankful for, even the smallest things. Be sure to share your list with family and friends and ask them what they are grateful for too!

Sources of Wonder

  • http://mentalfloss.com/article/20218/why-we-eat-what-we-eat-thanksgiving
  • http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/recycled/2009/11/wherefore_turkey.html


1. Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

One of the main reasons why turkey became the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner is rooted in history. When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they celebrated a successful harvest with a feast that included wild turkey. Since then, turkey has become a symbol of abundance and celebration associated with Thanksgiving. Additionally, turkeys are large enough to feed a crowd, making them a practical choice for a holiday that often involves large family gatherings.

2. Are there any other reasons for eating turkey on Thanksgiving?

While the historical significance of turkey is important, there are also practical reasons for its popularity on Thanksgiving. Turkey is a lean protein that is relatively affordable and widely available. It can be prepared in various ways, from traditional roasting to deep-frying or smoking, allowing for personal preference and creativity in the kitchen. Moreover, the leftover turkey can be used for sandwiches, soups, and other meals in the following days, making it a practical choice for the holiday.

3. Is there a specific way to prepare the turkey for Thanksgiving?

There is no one-size-fits-all method for preparing a turkey on Thanksgiving. However, the most common and traditional way is to roast it in the oven. This involves seasoning the turkey with salt, pepper, and other desired spices, stuffing it if desired, and roasting it at a specific temperature and cooking time. Basting the turkey with butter or broth throughout the cooking process helps to keep it moist and flavorful. It is important to follow food safety guidelines and ensure that the internal temperature of the turkey reaches at least 165°F (74°C) to ensure it is fully cooked.

4. Are there any alternatives to turkey for Thanksgiving?

While turkey is the traditional choice, there are various alternatives for those who prefer different flavors or have dietary restrictions. Some popular alternatives include roasted chicken, ham, beef, or vegetarian options such as stuffed acorn squash or a hearty vegetable Wellington. These options can still provide a delicious and festive centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table, allowing everyone to enjoy a meal that suits their preferences and dietary needs.

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