Thanksgiving is here. That means turkeys are the main focus: running races (Turkey Trots), pre-orders at the grocery store or meat vendor, discussions of how to thaw, how to cook, to brine or not to brine, to deep fry or rotisserie, and so on.
My Thanksgivings growing up in southern California had a fairly set pattern. We left early, though never early enough to avoid the 405 traffic to my grandparents. My uncle’s family and ours would all converge by late morning, and each year my grandma aimed to eat at 1:00. We were usually lucky to sit down by 5:00. The hold-up was mostly due to waiting on the turkey.
The males gathered in the tiny TV room to watch football, everyone squeezed onto the two armchairs, my cousins wearing out the reclining mechanism on Grandpa’s. We females would hang out in the kitchen with Grandma, snacking on enough sour cream onion dip and potato chips to last until next Thanksgiving. When I was in high school, my grandma and I would sneak margaritas - she’d make them from these packets of powdered drink mix. I fancied myself quite the sophisticate, sipping from the salted rim of my glass, and I didn’t at all mind the turkey delay.
Why is it that turkeys are such an integral part of the holiday we call Thanksgiving? Also, what are all those red things around their faces and necks?
As it turns out, turkey was not necessarily a part of the “first Thanksgiving,” a feast held by the Wampanoag people and English settlers in 1621 at Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. Most likely that meal included geese, ducks, and even seafood like lobster. It most likely did not include sweet potatoes with marshmallows or green bean casserole.
The association of turkey with the Thanksgiving meal is largely due to the author Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote the 1827 novel Northwood. In that novel, she described a New England Thanksgiving in great detail, including the turkey as the key component of the Thanksgiving meal. She lobbied to have Thanksgiving designated a national holiday, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln signed the presidential proclamation to make it official.
Wild turkeys are native to Mexico. European explorers brought wild turkeys back with them and thus turkeys were domesticated in Europe. The English settlers later brought domesticated turkeys with them to North America. Benjamin Franklin wrote that the turkey, a respectable bird and one native to the Americas, would make a more fitting choice as the nation’s symbol than the bald eagle.
Wild and domestic turkeys differ from one another in various ways:
Turkeys can run - fast! - approximately 25 mph. Domestic birds can fly into trees for safety, but their wild cousins can actually fly. It is only the toms who gobble, usually in the spring and fall, to attract the hens. The wild turkeys don’t just gobble, they can make almost 30 different calls.
The turkey's unique anatomy:
Almanac: Turkey Trivia
Brittanica: Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT