In Our View: Holiday Gives Turkey its Due

Bird's limited usefulness beyond dinner table turns it into star of Thanksgiving

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Why turkey? Hundreds of millions of Americans will sit down to dinner today to give a little thanks and eat a lot of food, and most of them will partake in a heaping helping of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey.

It's not that we have anything against the turkey, a perfectly lovely beast that Benjamin Franklin once advocated as a symbol of the nation. But turkeys are hardly engaging while alive — they aren't considered to be particularly bright — and they aren't notably attractive. Once they arrive on the dinner table, they don't have anything on chicken or ham or pork when it comes to taste, although that, to coin a phrase, is a matter of taste. And while the noble-but-undistinguished turkey is undoubtedly a fixture of holiday meals, historians say it is unlikely that the bird made an appearance at the inaugural Thanksgiving feast, believed to have taken place in 1621.

So, why turkey? Why has this particular bird become synonymous with the holiday Americans celebrate as a precursor to the Christmas shopping season? Well, it turns out that the turkey's various shortcomings are, in large part, behind its role in the Thanksgiving holiday.

Turkeys, you see, don't have much utilitarian purpose, at least in American culture. Chickens make for good eating, as well, but when the United States was primarily agrarian, chickens were more useful if they were alive, so long as they could lay eggs. And cows? Cows have become a staple of the American diet, but they could be more beneficial if they were left alive to produce milk.

Turkeys, on the other hand, are perhaps at their most useful on the dinner table. So, woe the beloved turkey, for it is his simple uselessness that has made him a staple of Thanksgiving feasts. Well, that and his vast size, the kind that is enough to feed a large gathering.

As Alexander Hamilton, one of this nation's Founding Fathers, once said, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." We won't go that far; there are plenty of options available for gorging, and not everybody chooses to eat meat. But in 2011, according to the National Turkey Federation, some 46 million turkeys were consumed at Thanksgiving, adding up to about 3 pounds worth for each person who took part in the traditional meal. That, we assume, includes weeks upon weeks of turkey sandwiches following the holiday.

This ignominious existence for the turkey might not be what Franklin had in mind more than two centuries ago. Franklin, certainly a man of brilliant mind, once wrote, "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a bird of bad moral Character … For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird."

While acknowledging that the turkey is "a little vain & silly," Franklin considered the bird to be more symbolic of the nation. On this one, we think that, for once, Franklin was wrong.

And yet the turkey has secured a spot in Americana as the representative of a day set aside to count our blessings and to give thanks. Perhaps most significantly, Thanksgiving is at once communal and highly personal. Each American has vastly difference reasons to be thankful today, and yet we gather with family, friends, or strangers to share the occasion.

While Thanksgiving long has been a tradition in the United States, it did not become an official holiday until established by President Lincoln in 1863 (the same year he delivered the Gettysburg Address and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, making for an eventful presidential year by any standard). And with that, the role of the turkey was irrevocably altered.