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New England by Heart

The Noble Turkey

Photo of eastern wild turkey

Thanksgiving has its roots in our eternal gratitude for the food which our fertile planet provides for us. From the earliest world cultures to the groaning tables of the modern age, we have celebrated the bounty and have given profound thanks for the food that sustains us. 

We fill our harvest plates with a vast variety of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, game and seafood. And here in America, we put the turkey in the place of honor. Which begs the question, how did this bird become the centerpiece and core symbol of our Thanksgiving feast?

The wild turkey is one of the most ungainly creatures. Have you ever watched them prepare for their night’s slumber? Local flocks often use our long, hilly driveway as a sort of runway to lumber down, for all the world looking like they’ll fall head over heels before taking an awkward flight to the highest, flimsiest branches of the tall oaks, which hardly look sturdy enough to hold a wren. One has to laugh. 

Photo of two wild turkeys
Two wild turkeys scoping out the driveway prior to takeoff to the trees
Photo of wild turkey before takeoff
A wild turkey getting ready to take off to the high trees

But back to Thanksgiving.

In America, our Thanksgiving traditions have also been closely tied to the myths and legends of our “First Thanksgiving” in Plymouth. So it’s understandable if you thought that this is where the turkey came onto the stage. But if it was on the menu at the Pilgrims’ first celebratory feast, there was no specific mention of it. 

There was wild fowl for sure, which may well have included wild turkey as they were abundant in the area, but it wouldn’t have been the centerpiece. Venison was a big part – the Pokanoket brought five deer to the three-day celebration. Fish and shellfish were undoubtedly served, and of course all the garden vegetables grown carefully through the season, as well as nuts and berries gathered from the local woods and fields. 

Image of Jean Louis Gerome Ferris' The First Thanksgiving

As time went on, and the colonies achieved a firm foothold, a greater variety of food was available through imports and the firmer establishment of agriculture. In Europe, the goose had long been associated with Christmas. Feeding on the remains of harvested fields, they become nice and fat just in time for the holidays. It didn’t hurt its popularity when Ebenezer Scrooge ordered the largest one from the local shop in Dickens’ popular novel A Christmas Carol.

So perhaps the turkey in America was deemed the best substitute for the goose, being more readily available. And like the goose, it’s a big bird and makes a correspondingly big statement. Not to mention that you could cook one and feed many. With the labor-intensive nature of cooking, this would be an incentive.  

In any case, by the end of the 19th century, turkey was a regular feature on the holiday table with no small thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale, the writer who created the children’s rhyme “Mary had a little lamb”. She described at length a Thanksgiving meal featuring a turkey in her 1827 novel Northwood, which may well have inspired her readers to follow her lead. She began lobbying politicians in 1846 to create a national Thanksgiving holiday, which President Lincoln signed into law in 1863.

Photo of a restaurant Thanksgiving menu

But however the turkey’s popularity came about, who’s to argue? Of all the holiday foods we enjoy throughout the year, the turkey is certainly a favorite. And oh, that wonderful stuffing and side dishes…

Norman Rockwell Freedom from Want

I often ponder while enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends why we don’t cook the fowl more often during the year. We eat plenty of it, stuffed into casseroles, salads and sandwiches, but the idea of cooking a whole turkey seems, well, too Thanksgiving-ish. Maybe it’s the effort, but I’m thinking that we might just need another feast in the dark winter months coming up. 

Have a very Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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