Why do Americans Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Over the years, Thanksgiving has earned the nickname “Turkey Day” for the enormous amount of turkey consumed by Americans. The turkey is the center of Thanksgiving dinner, and even if you don’t like it, it’s the one day of the year where you force yourself to eat it in the spirit of the holiday. But why do Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving? The answer is more surprising than you think.

thanksgiving dinner table

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? | bhofack2/Getty Images

Turkey was not served at the first Thanksgiving

Contrary to what you may have thought, turkey most likely was not served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Although no records can confirm it wasn’t served, they also can’t confirm that it was. According to Mental Floss, one colonist noted in his journal that wild fowl were collected for the meal. However, just as turkeys roamed the states back in the 15th century, so did ducks and geese, which means the pilgrims may have dined on any of the three.

Turkey is unique to North America, which made it a strong candidate for the holiday meal

When Thanksgiving first got its start, it wasn’t immediately recognized as a major American holiday. But over time, presidents started to recognize it annually (not all presidents did, though). By the time Abraham Lincoln took office, Thanksgiving had become more widely accepted. He decided to make it a national holiday in 1863. And when it came to the menu, one thing came to mind: Turkey. Turkey is unique to North America, which made people think it would be a perfect bird to center a North-American holiday around.

Time reported that Sarah Joseph Hale, a New Englander who often wrote accounts of past Thanksgivings in the 19th century, had something to do with the turkey’s popularity, too. Hale often centered her own Thanksgiving dinner around the turkey. As her accounts became more well-known, people began to adopt the idea of cooking a turkey on Thanksgiving.

Its practicality played a big role, too

In addition to the turkey being native to North America, its practicality may have played a role in it becoming a popular Thanksgiving dish. Turkeys are larger than most other birds, yet small enough to set down on a table. The bird can easily feed everyone at the table, which made it an almost obvious choice for those looking to feed a crowd. One chicken wouldn’t serve a party of 10, but a large turkey would. Experts believe the need for choosing meals for practicality years ago helped with adopting the turkey as the Thanksgiving dish of choice.

Today, it’s a Thanksgiving staple

Regardless of how turkey got its start, it remains the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners. But it’s actually always been one of the least popular meats in the country. According to Huffington Post, people eat turkey less often than they eat any of the other major meats: Chicken, beef, and pork. The average American consumes roughly 60 pounds each of chicken and beef annually, yet only consumes less than 20 pounds of turkey. It looks like Thanksgiving is the only time of year this meat shines.

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