How did Thanksgiving become Turkey Day?

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff

Many Americans would say that a Thanksgiving table isn’t complete without the Thanksgiving turkey. The indigenous bird is considered the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal, but how did the turkey come to be such a popular holiday dish? We’re exploring the history of the Thanksgiving turkey, and featuring one of our favorite turkey recipes for this week’s holiday meal!

So why turkey?

For most Americans, this year’s Thanksgiving table will center around a turkey, baked or fried as the main dish. But it’s difficult to say whether the original pilgrims might have also enjoyed a turkey with their first Thanksgiving meal in 1621. While turkey were plentiful, no written accounts of the meal include mention of turkey. Most mention “wild fowl,” which historians have come to believe were most like duck and geese.

If the pilgrims did decide to dine on turkey, it would have been used in many different ways during the event, which originally lasted for three days. Served whole, in stews and soups, and sometimes stuffed with herbs and nuts, the pilgrims wasted none of the birds they chose for their meal with the Wampanoag tribe.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that turkey began to take center-stage during Thanksgiving meals. It’s been famously stated that after sitting down to a Thanksgiving table in the late 1700s with no turkey, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton stated that “no citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” However, up to this point Thanksgiving itself was not widely celebrated across the country – the popularity of the holiday built slowly, until it was finally declared a national holiday under Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

A photo from Ronald Reagan’s 1988 turkey pardoning. Reprinted from A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites & More, by Darcy Doughtery Maulsby, courtesy of the Iowa Turkey Federation (The History Press, 2016).As Thanksgiving became a more popular holiday across the still-expanding United States, turkey quickly proved to be the meat of choice for the holiday meal. A larger bird, a turkey could easily satiate a full Thanksgiving table, but was still uncommon enough to serve as a “special” meal. By the mid-1800s, turkey was considered the main event of a Thanksgiving meal, and had become a popular enough holiday bird to be featured in multiple cookbooks and restaurant menus.

The turkey’s popularity as a holiday meat only grew during the early 20th century. Even in the midst of hardships like the Great Depression or World War II, Americans continued to purchase and prepare turkeys for their Thanksgiving tables. The popularity of the bird for holiday dinners was a large contributing factor to its subsequent domestication, and it even gained its own unique Presidential tradition: since the 1940s, most Presidents have “pardoned” the turkey presented to them for Thanksgiving, and the tradition has been an official US ceremony since 1989.

Today, it’s estimated that approximately 45 million turkeys are consumed on each Thanksgiving Day, and the bird has become a central feature of American culture. If you’re looking for a new way to serve America’s favorite holiday bird this Thanksgiving, consider this turkey tenderloin recipe from A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites & More. Happy Turkey Day!

Iowa’s Grilled Turkey Tenderloin

2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup dry sherry or red wine
2 tablespoons dehydrated onion
¼ teaspoon ginger
¹⁄8 teaspoon black pepper
¹⁄8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 pound turkey tenderloins

To make the marinade, mix all ingredients (except turkey tenderloins) together in a plastic bag or storage container. If desired, slice the turkey tenderloins in half lengthwise to make two thinner fillets or slice in half to make two long, circular shapes. Combine turkey with marinade and refrigerate for several hours. Grill marinated turkey over hot coals 6 to 8 minutes per side, or until a meat thermometer registers 170 degrees and the middle of the meat is no longer pink. If desired, serve on a hot dog or hoagie bun.
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