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Why turkey on Thanksgiving? A food historian explains

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This is a traditional American feast but some other countries around the world also celebrate Thanksgiving.
A traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Why is turkey the star of the show on Thanksgiving? Andrew F. Smith, author of "The Turkey: An American Story,” explores this question.

Americans consume around 240 million turkeys every year, and that number continues to go up.

But why is turkey the star of the show on Thanksgiving? Why not a nice fat chicken, or a juicy roast beef? 

"The Turkey: An American Story,” explores this question, and author Andrew F. Smith joins Take Two to explain more.

You can learn more about Smith's book on his website.


Is turkey native to America?

The first turkey walked over from Asia to North America. The first archaeological evidence for it is 50,000 years ago. It proliferated in North America and was domesticated in Mexico. The Europeans ran into it in Mexico and introduced it into Europe and by 1550 it was a common Christmas celebration food. The Europeans when they came to colonize America were already familiar with the turkey.

When did Thanksgiving turkey start here? Did it involve the pilgrims?

Wild turkeys were common through all of North America so you had people eating turkeys from the beginning. Domestic turkeys were imported by European colonists and those took off too. The pilgrims ate turkeys but they didn't eat turkey on Thanksgiving so there's no relationship between Thanksgiving days, of which the pilgrims celebrated, but they were religious days they would have spent in church. They wouldn't engage in frivolous activities like making three bean casserole and things like that.

When was the first Thanksgiving?

The first ever Thanksgiving we have is the late 18th century and it doesn't become a national holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declares it so.

Was a turkey part of those meals?

All of the early evidence for those late 18th century meals [shows] turkey was a part of those. It doesn't become a core part of the Thanksgiving dinner until the late 19th century, so it's not until a little over 150 years ago that the turkey becomes the centerpiece for what we think of as Thanksgiving.

How did preparation of the meal evolve over time?

The turkey was the centerpiece but each region and ethnic group had their own side dish. So you have a wide variety of dishes that are served along with the turkey. In New England, cranberries are common so you would have cranberry sauce. But you don’t have cranberries in the south so they would have had other sauces to go with it. And stuffing, I located about 1000 different stuffing recipes before I just stopped. So whatever you had locally was what you put into the bird to stuff it or dress it.  

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