Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in America, and at some point in the morning my wife Debbie will awake and unpack our turkey for the traditional dinner.
At some time tomorrow afternoon she is scheduled to slide the nice 17-pound Butterball out of our oven. I’ll move into position with the electric carving knife, and peel off nice slices and pieces of white meat. Then I’ll flip that bad boy over and go after the dark meat on the bottom.
We will then put the turkey out on our table with some veggies and fixings that will most definitely include mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, spinach, rolls, and gravy. Then we will join my daughter Kelly and her boyfriend Jay in digging in to the annual feast.
Ours will be a relatively small dinner, but there will be many around our town, region, and nation that will be much larger. Families will gather from far and near, taking days off from work, returning from school, going back home for the holiday.
At the vast majority of these dinner tables, the turkey will be the featured attraction. But why? Where did this all start? Why turkey and not roast beef, or pork chops, or spaghetti (no, my South Philly Italian friends, your pasta course does not count.)
Turkey is the main dish at Thanksgiving, what we all look forward to so much on this particular day that we don’t have this dinner much, if at all, at other times during the year.
The turkey was a wild bird original to North America, native to the eastern United States and northern Mexico.
The bird was domesticated and brought to Europe in the 16th century, and it began to be raised much more extensively due to the high quality of their meat and eggs.
The first Thanksgiving is traditionally recognized as having taken place among the Pilgrims and the native American Indians. Though there is no documentation that turkey was served at this feast, it almost certainly would have been a logical option.
Some 22 years after that first celebration, William Bradford wrote his historic piece titled “Of Plymouth Plantation“, and in the piece there is a quote stating that the governor had “sent four men out fowling, and they returned with turkeys, ducks, and geese.”
Bradford’s work fell into the hands of the British during the Revolutionary War and did not surface in America again until 1854. On it’s rediscovery and dispersal to the public, the turkey’s roll at those early gatherings was recognized, and the bird began to turn into a symbol of Thanksgiving which simply grew and grew as the years and decades moved along.
In the years after the Revolution, America was searching for many symbols to associate with the new country, and talk turned to a national bird. The favorite and ultimately the chosen symbol was the Bald Eagle, but no less than Benjamin Franklin himself supported the turkey, saying that it was “a much more respectable bird, and a true original of North America.”
The respect for the turkey has taken a humorous turn at the highest levels of our government as well. Each year since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush “pardoned” the turkey given to him as a gift from the Poultry and Egg National Board, a turkey has been ceremonially pardoned by the sitting President.
This idea was originally begun by either Abraham Lincoln, who legend says pardoned his son’s pet turkey, or by John Kennedy who supposedly was given the holiday bird gift and said “Let’s just keep him.”
So, the eagle soars through the skies as America’s symbol to this day, but it is the turkey to which we turn to celebrate the thanks that we give for this land, for our families, and for our freedom.