“Why is turkey the traditional Thanksgiving meat?” The Newton Falls Public Library staff does not often get asked about commonly accepted customs such as this. Discovering the answers to questions like this is always interesting.
The Folklore of American Holidays has an extensive section about Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations including the origins and customs. Under Thanksgiving Dinner and What it Means [p.466], the basic menu of turkey, dressing, cranberries, potatoes, and pumpkin pie are listed, but not the reasons for the selections. We extended our search online and found http://www.foodtimeline.org/ with information about Historic American Thanksgiving dinner menus. In 1621, a contemporary description of the three day Plymouth Colony celebration lists waterfowl, turkey, and venison as the meals’ meats. It appears that until the mid 1900’s, a variety of meats were commonly served for this dinner.
Searching the OhioWebLibrary.org/ebsco we found an article which appeared in Highlights for Children [Nov2010, Vol. 65 Issue 11, p6-7, 2p] A Turkey at the White House! author, Jeannine Q. Norris, relates the story of the pardoning of the turkey by President Lincoln. His son, Tad liked a turkey that was given to the president for Christmas dinner and begged his father to pardon the bird. Thus began the custom of pardoning the White House turkey.
In The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States by Elizabeth Pleck [Journal of Social History; Summer99, Vol. 32 Issue 4, p773, 17p]. Ms. Pleck states, “In early nineteenth century New England Thanksgiving day might begin with a morning church service, followed by the large meal in the afternoon. Before or after attending church, men, musket in hand, might take aim at a wild turkey in the fields, or at paper targets. The winner usually won a turkey as his prize for good marksmanship.” In the 1920s, teachers began teaching about the holiday and decorated their classrooms with . . . pictures of Pilgrims and turkeys. One wonders if this early childhood association with the holiday and turkeys helped to cement a lasting connection between the holiday and the menu.
We informed our patron, while we could not find a definitive reason it seems to have become customary to serve turkey due to common practice.