Why is turkey synonymous with Thanksgiving?

(Ken Paris/Flickr Commons/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — So many American Thanksgiving traditions stem – or at least are inspired by – the “First Thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving, in essence then and now, is a day set aside to reflect on the blessings we have received over the year; to delight in the fruits of a successful harvest.

But, oddly enough, turkey likely wasn’t on the menu for the three-day feast between the pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe. There is only one written account of the “First Thanksgiving” and turkey isn’t mentioned. Duck, venison and seafood, however, were enjoyed for that meal.

So how did turkey become so synonymous with Thanksgiving?

It turns out turkey wasn’t always synonymous with the Thanksgiving holiday as much as it was synonymous with the American lifestyle in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Pilgrims already were accustomed to eating turkey because the bird, first domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico, was brought to Europe in the 16th century. Historians report turkeys were being bred in England as early as 1541 and quickly became a popular dish.

Wild turkeys were common in New England when the settlers came stateside and were a common fixture of the early American diet. Turkey likely became synonymous with Thanksgiving because it was a readily available meal that could feed a large group of people.

Turkeys were also more easily expendable than other choices in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cows and hens were too useful to be sacrificed for a meal — providing milk and eggs — while rooster meat is generally tough and undesirable. Turkeys were often kept around farms to eat bugs and worms and often plumped up to a reasonable size by harvest time – making it an ideal choice for a feast.

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