It’s almost Thanksgiving, and with that comes thoughts of big family dinners with a golden turkey as the centerpiece. How far back does the tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving go? Some say it all started with the Pilgrims, with the First Thanksgiving in 1621, but there is no direct mention of eating turkeys at that time. Still, the large native bird has become a symbol of holiday meals. For some families, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same without turkey on the table.
So when did turkeys become so popular? Some say it started with Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol in 1843. However, others give credit to Sarah Josepha Hale, author of Northwood in 1827. She wrote a chapter describing a New England Thanksgiving meal, including a roasted turkey “placed at the head of the table.”
Calling someone a turkey is an old insult – but it comes from the more modern farmed turkey. Farm-raised turkeys have a reputation for being stupid birds. Wild turkeys are very different. If Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey would have been America’s national bird.
As author G.T. Klein said, the American turkey was “wild and wary to the point of genius.” Wild turkeys are brightly plumed and have longer necks and legs than farmed birds. They also have smaller chests. Farmed turkeys are bred to have larger breasts (for the white meat).
The character Big Bird from Sesame Street uses nearly 4,000 white turkey feathers for its costume. The feathers are dyed the bright yellow that Big Bird has become famous for.
What sound does a turkey make? If you said “gobble, gobble,” you’d just be partly right. Only the tom turkeys gobble, the females make a clucking or clicking sound.
Wild turkeys sleep in trees at night but build their nests on land using dry leaves.
The largest of the birds is the Bronze turkey. Adult males (toms) can weigh up to 50 pounds while females (hens) only weigh up to about 16 pounds.