The Real Reason We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving

Circa 1945: A little girl on Thanksgiving, watching anxiously for the turkey to be carved.

© American Stock Archive / Getty Images

By F&W Editors Posted November 25, 2015

Thank the turkey herders.

“Many have been the tales of the great cattle drives. Hardly anyone remembers the great turkey walks,” writes author Kathleen Karr in her book The Great Turkey Walk. The quote—which makes us giggle today—helps tell the story of why we eat Thanksgiving turkey, according to food historian Emelyn Rude. Rude’s essay for Time describes the many origin stories that turkey lovers (and haters) reference when explaining why we celebrate a 1621 Pilgrim party with a food that had little place at the Native American table. Is it because of the predilections of Thanksgiving’s biggest booster—the New England woman who got Abe Lincoln to recognize the holiday—or does it have something to do with Ben Franklin finding turkeys quite “respectable”?

Most likely, turkey's place at the table comes as the result of many factors, but it would have been hard to start the tradition if few Americans could get their hands on a bird. Rude goes on to explain how antebellum turkey drovers traveled up to 20 miles a day, by foot, tossing corn in front of the gobblers and avoiding woodsy areas where turkeys liked to roost, all in the name of a delicious roast. It wasn’t a direct route to market either. “Roads in the late 18th and 19th centuries in the United States were generally pretty bad and accounts of the great turkey drives recall the flocks bravely fording streams and climbing rocky hills, or flying over lakes and rivers at least a mile across,” says Rude. So this Thanksgiving, thank your cooks, your loved ones and old school turkey purveyors. Then cover everything in the perfect gravy.

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