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What is the History of the Turkey in America?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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The wild turkey is a true American original, as it was among one of the country's first exports to the Old World. As early as the 16th century in Europe, wild American turkeys were being domesticated and crossbred to produce the best breeds for farm breeding. Italy, England and France all raised domesticated turkeys. Those that people eat throughout the world are most likely breeds developed in Europe, descended from those sent from North America.

The turkey’s most famous role, at least in the United States and Canada, is as the main course in Thanksgiving Day dinner. Although legend has it that the Pilgrims ate turkey as the main course on the first Thanksgiving Day in 1621, it is widely accepted that it was not added to the menu until around 1800. Another myth is that Benjamin Franklin nominated the bird as an alternative to the bald eagle for the nation’s official bird. This, as it turns out, was not the case, but he did make it known that he preferred its “respectable” character over that of the bald eagle’s. He touted its ability to represent America as a native of the country.

There are five different subspecies of wild turkey living in habitats across North America: Eastern, Florida, Gould’s, Merriam’s, and Rio Grande wild turkeys. Unfortunately, the clearing of the forests of North America, coupled with heavy hunting, led to a significant reduction in the wild turkey population. The problem reached a critical point in the 1930s, when 18 of the original 39 states with had lost their populations altogether. Ontario, Canada also lost a large part of its turkey population. Although legislation was enacted to help protect these birds, populations didn't build back up until the 1960s.

Americans love turkeys, especially when they’re fresh from the oven and on their Thanksgiving plates. Approximately 256 million turkeys were raised in 2005 in the US, 46 million prepared for Thanksgiving alone. When surveyed, 95% of Americans prefer turkey as their first choice for Thanksgiving dinner, and most Americans eat about 16.7 pounds (7.57 kilograms) of turkey per person every year. Turkeys are also used for their feathers and down to make down pillows and comforters, and their tanned skin can be used to make belts and shoes.

Many Americans also enjoy a tradition that takes place every year since 1947, in which the President ceremoniously pardons a live turkey. The turkey, which is presented by the National Turkey Federation, lives out its life in relative comfort, with no fear of ending up as the main course. A historical farm provides the surviving pardoned turkeys a sanctuary to live out their retirement.

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Discussion Comments
By TunaLine — On Dec 14, 2010

There is really nothing better than turkey and stuffing if you're looking for good old American food. However you cook your turkey, whether you're one of those who do them in the crock pot or whether you fry it or what, seeing those steaming slices of turkey with the stuffing piled on top is really a culinary experience.

I'm glad that this is one tradition that's kept going here in America, because to me, that's one of the main tastes of being an American. It's like Coke and apple pie and hamburgers on the fourth of July.

Anybody with me?

By musicshaman — On Dec 13, 2010

You forgot about turkey hunting! Many Americans, especially in more rural areas, like to go turkey hunting in the fall. My dad and his brothers go every year, and although hunting isn't my thing, I sure do appreciate all the fresh turkey that we have for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Some areas even have turkey hunting contests where you can do turkey calling or see who bags the most turkey in one day. Of course, most of them are very responsible, and distribute the meat around the community or freeze it for later use.

What about you guys? Do you or your family members go turkey hunting, is that part of your family traditions too?

By Charlie89 — On Dec 13, 2010

I've always found it rather odd that Americans have such a love affair with turkey recipes.

Now, I don't mind having the odd turkey leg, and turkey breast really makes for a nice sandwich, but it's not like turkey is particularly better as a meat, I think. In fact, it can be a little rough, especially if it's frozen before it gets to you.

Is there some reason besides the nostalgia that so many Americans like turkey, or is it just a cultural thing?

I'm not from the States, so I don't have the same kind of turkey-filled upbringing, and would just really like to know what the appeal is.

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