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Why Turkey?

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Since turkey sucks, we should at least ask the question of why this vastly, objectively, inferior meat on Thanksgiving. The most common answer is that it is big, but that doesn’t really answer the question. There’s lots of ways to have a lot of people over to eat and no one is making turkey for their summer gatherings.

Well, the answer is partly that it is big. But that’s not all. It’s also the obsession with national myth making in early 19th century New England and the marketing campaigns of the late 19th century.

Historians like me who have studied the history of food have found that most modern Thanksgiving traditions began in the mid-19th century, more than two centuries after the Pilgrims’ first harvest celebration.

The reinvention of the Pilgrims’ celebration as a national holiday was largely the work of Sarah Hale. Born in New Hampshire in 1784, as a young widow she published poetry to earn a living. Most notably, she wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

In 1837, Hale became the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Fiercely religious and family-focused, it crusaded for the creation of an annual national holiday of “Thanksgiving and Praise” commemorating the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving feast.

Hale and her colleagues leaned on 1621 lore for historical justification. Like many of her contemporaries, she assumed the Pilgrims ate turkey at their first feast because of the abundance of edible wild turkeys in New England.

This campaign took decades, partly due to a lack of enthusiasm among white Southerners. Many of them considered an earlier celebration among Virginia colonists in honor of supply ships that arrived at Jamestown in 1610 to be the more important precedent.

The absence of Southerners serving in Congress during the Civil War enabled President Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Godey’s, along with other media, embraced the holiday, packing their pages with recipes from New England and menus that prominently featured turkey.

“We dare say most of the Thanksgiving will take the form of gastronomic pleasure,” Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle predicted in 1882. “Every person who can afford turkey or procure it will sacrifice the noble American fowl to-day.”

One reason for this: A roasted turkey makes a perfect celebratory centerpiece.

A second one is that turkey is also practical for serving to a large crowd. Turkeys are bigger than other birds raised or hunted for their meat, and it’s cheaper to produce a turkey than a cow or pig. The bird’s attributes led Europeans to incorporate turkeys into their diets following their colonization of the Americas. In England, King Henry VIII regularly enjoyed turkey on Christmas day a century before the Pilgrims’ feast.

While liberals often prefer New England to the South, the region pushing turkey on us really is an outrage that should make us rethink our entire ranking of American regions.

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