How Tom the Turkey ended up on the Thanksgiving table

Emma Bartlett, Arts and Culture Editor

By this time next Thursday, 88% of Americans will have eaten turkey at their holiday dinners, according to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. Turkeys are already stacked high at supermarkets and while all the living poultry may be wondering why their friends keep disappearing, there is one question looming overhead — how did turkey become the traditional food associated with Thanksgiving?

Around the time Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, turkey started popping up on family and friends’ tables. Prior to that point, turkey had not been the main course. There was even discrepancy over the First Thanksgiving and whether it actually included turkey or not. The late governor of the Plymouth colony, William Bradford, had journals that described various types of foods at the celebration, but ‘turkey’ was not explicitly stated in surviving documents. When Bradford’s journals were reprinted in 1856, the writings about colonists hunting wild turkeys during autumn caught Americans’ attention. This led to one of the theories for why the bird is a main dish on the holiday. 

Another speculation behind turkey’s popularity is its accessibility. Wild turkeys are native to North America and seemed to be a suitable choice, considering there were an abundance of them and they could feed large numbers of people. According to The University of Illinois Extension, the average turkey purchased at Thanksgiving weighs 15 pounds. An article by Alyssa Fiorentino on estimated that a turkey of this size is needed to feed 12 people.

Rumor has it that Charles Dickens may have influenced our choice of fowl for the day of celebration. In “A Christmas Carol,” Americans were presented with the idea that turkeys were special and reserved for certain occasions, since it was one of the things the Cratchit family desired most for the Christmas season.

Turkey at Thanksgiving has become a tradition and it is common among households to hear, “It’s not Thanksgiving without turkey.” As holiday traditions continue to be passed down through generations, meals remain relatively the same. The adoption of turkey has also led to different adaptations. For vegetarians and vegans celebrating the holiday, Tofurky has gained popularity and includes a diverse selection.

Thanksgiving is ranked as the second most popular holiday in America. Although Benjamin Franklin’s dream of making the turkey America’s national emblem never came true, the turkey has not been forgotten. While most living poultry will go into hiding as the day of celebration draws near, feel free to tell family and friends how Tom the Turkey made it to your dinner table.