Turkey has become synonymous with Thanksgiving. Even if your family is partial to a glazed ham over a roasted bird, you probably still associate turkey with a Thanksgiving feast (right next to the dressing—or do you call it stuffing?). It’s one of the only days during the year when an enormous bird becomes a holiday centerpiece. Why turkey? Some traditions we think of as essential to the holiday actually developed over time. President Abraham Lincoln designated Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, at which point the day began to develop into the celebration we know it to be today.
Turkey wasn’t always a key part of the Thanksgiving tradition. According to Mental Floss, “There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, as colonist William Bradford noted in his journal. However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey.”
If it wasn’t necessarily present at the very first Thanksgiving feast, why do we associate turkey with Thanksgiving? That could be for a number of reasons. One, turkey is native to North America and would be a fitting choice for a harvest feast in the U.S. It’s also a large, widely available bird, and one turkey can easily feed a large group of people. That makes it a smart choice for big gatherings such as Thanksgiving. Throughout the 19th century, turkey began to be associated with feasting and holidays, so it was only natural that it would become a go-to addition to Thanksgiving celebrations too. Turkey as holiday game was mentioned in popular books, and the mythology of the first Thanksgiving became more widespread, all of which contributed to its growing popularity—and continued presence—on Thanksgiving tables.
For more musings on turkey, check out our Thanksgiving turkey primer, and try some of our favorite turkey recipes this holiday: Roasted Herb Turkey and Gravy, Sweet and Spicy Roast Turkey, and Smoked Turkey with Herb Rub.
WATCH: How To Carve A Turkey
What are your go-to Thanksgiving dishes? Do you have turkey or ham? Pecan pie or pumpkin?