11 min read

How The Turkey Became Thanksgiving’s Mascot

<p><a class="checked-link" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Josepha_Hale#mediaviewer/File:Letter-SarahHaletoLincoln.jpg">Chauncey Davis/Flickr</a></p>

The legend goes that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans came together around a dinner table in 1621 to celebrate the harvest, reconcile their differences and feast over a table overflowing with food. Contrary to popular belief, one element may have been conspicuously absent on that weighed-down table: a turkey.

According to Plimoth Plantation, an historic site in Massachusetts, most accounts say that the original Thanksgiving diners ate "fowl," among other meat dishes, such as venison. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended the feast, wrote in a letter:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week."

Conflicting reports say that the birds served at the meal could have been turkeys, ducks, geese, swans, cranes or even eagles. So how did turkey -the national symbol for Thanksgiving -become the bird that 88 percent of Americans eat on the fourth Thursday of November every year?

The adoption of the turkey as Thanksgiving's unofficial mascot dates back to an unusual historical figure - an American writer by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale, a woman who also happens to be the author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." A New Hampshire native born in 1788, Hale was a popular editor and became something of an adjudicator for the role of women of her time: she set standards for taste in topics like literature, cooking and fashion. Hale is perhaps the sole reason why Thanksgiving today exists as we know it; she has even been called the "godmother of Thanksgiving."

(Public Domain)

Hale became obsessed with establishing the Thanksgiving holiday, hoping for a second national holiday to match that of Independence Day. In her writings, she emphasized the power of the holiday to both unify the nation and connote religious meanings.

In a novel she wrote called "Northwood," published in 1827, she described what would become the idyllic Thanksgiving table, taking the opportunity to introduce turkey as its star:

"[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude."
The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting.

For 17 years, Hale lobbied for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, even writing letters to five presidents, including Abraham Lincoln:

(Library of Congress)

It was this letter that led to the creation of the holiday. In 1863, perhaps in an effort to unify the country in the aftermath of a bitter Civil War, Lincoln invited Americans to "observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving." It wasn't until after Hale's death that the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established Thanksgiving as a legal holiday.

Throughout all of this, Hale was touting her idea of the perfect Thanksgiving, and turkey was always at its center. The bird was as symbolic as the holiday itself: a sign of a nation's great wealth and ability to provide for its citizens.

That symbol has carried on to this day, according to Karen Davis, president of the organization United Poultry Concerns and author of a book on the tradition of Thanksgiving.

"The ‘turkey at Thanksgiving idea' is that the turkey is the de facto symbol of America's prowess, of its national origin myth," Davis told The Dodo. "But it's a creation myth that was just invented."

Davis notes that the turkey tradition was only strengthened when President Ronald Reagan began the symbolic gesture of pardoning turkeys. He did so in jest to avoid journalists' questions about the Iran-Contra scandal and whether he would pardon the people involved. He evaded the question by making a joke about pardoning a turkey instead.

Davis says that while it's good to save one turkey from slaughter, this only stands in stark contrast to the rest of the birds. "Pardoning turkeys every year draws attention to the millions of other turkeys who are not pardoned." These turkeys are the ones who end up on serving platters.

While the realities of the turkey production industry are gruesome and well-known by now, the tradition of eating turkey on a holiday can mask these from diners, Davis says. We focus on the turkey as a sign of national unification and the wealth of the country, forgetting that the animal was, more often that not, overfed and filled with a plethora of antibiotics, not to mention slaughtered before he was ever stuffed with stuffing. In fact, because of factory farming, most turkeys on modern dinner tables barely resemble the wild birds that originally graced early Thanksgiving tables - they've usually been bred to become three times larger than their wild contemporaries in just four months.

But the tradition of Thanksgiving is not as tightly bound to the turkey as it once was. As scientists reveal that turkeys are both smarter and more emotionally complex than we once thought, and as turkey alternatives become more popular, more and more people are choosing to participate in the holiday - but not in the act of eating meat. Since 1995, per capita turkey consumption in the U.S. has dropped by 11 percent. That infamous substitute, Tofurky, is even seeing a rise in profits around Thanksgiving as a result.

(Turtle Islands Foods)

In 1995, Turtle Island Foods, the creator of Tofurky (a blend of wheat protein and organic tofu), sold just 500 meatless "roasts," according to Seth Tibbott, the company's founder. Last year, Americans bought 340,596 roasts. The company estimates that these substitutions account for the theoretical "pardoning" of some 564,000 turkeys.

Despite the best efforts of the holiday's "godmother," the turkey is not necessarily a requirement for Thanksgiving anymore - and he's probably happy not to be attending.