As you flip mindlessly through this issue of The Vanguard that was unceremoniously forced on you on your way out of the gym, sulking in your seat about the great injustice of attending a 45-minute assembly—I know what Thanksgiving is already, thank you very much— your mind may wander to the imminent four-day weekend.
Free from school and homework and all worldly responsibilities, you start to think about the jam-packed day of football, the piles and piles of food awaiting you, the uncomfortable political dinner conversations with that one uncle, the colleges—no, you tell yourself, and you force yourself to think once again about turkey.
In this contrived scenario, you dwell on the turkey because it’s the word I’ve chosen for this column. “Why is this bird named after a country?” you wonder. “Do they eat turkey in Turkey? Why do we eat it? Why do we only eat it once a year?”
Well, I’m glad you asked. The Atlantic reports a theory by linguist Mario Pei that Turks in the 1400s traded wild fowl native to Africa to Europeans, who, in their endless ingenuity, decided to call it “turkey.” This turkey was not the same bird we eat today, but that was no matter to the pilgrims: when they first arrived in Massachusetts and saw the North American bird, they figured the old name would do just fine.
Turkey became the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinners due to economic reasons, asserts Slate blogger Michelle Tsai. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, she writes, turkey became the foremost choice for consumption because chickens and cows were too useful to be eaten—they produced eggs and milk. And while swans were briefly considered as an alternative, their aquatic diets apparently made them taste too fishy to catch on. Turkeys were the perfect blend of useless and delicious.
At times, turkey may seem a very disappointing meat. It’s dry, it doesn’t taste like much, and it is often presented as the sadder, healthier option (think turkey burgers or turkey bacon).
In sixth grade, my homeroom decided to throw a Thanksgiving feast. Because I was absent when we were assigned food to bring, I came in the next day and Ms. M asked me with love in her voice if I would mind bringing the turkey. With no conception of how difficult and time-consuming cooking a turkey might be, I eagerly agreed.
I was bamboozled. When I went home and told my mother, her face fell: “You what?!”
Long story short, microwaved turkey is never worthwhile, as my sixth-grade class and I learned together.
But turkey has nonetheless been a Thanksgiving staple for me ever since I can remember. Though my mom might have been reluctant to roast a turkey for a class of 11-year-olds, she would have no qualms spending hours to prepare a proper feast for my family. Although most of my family lives in China, we’ve never had an empty Thanksgiving table. Every year, my uncle would come over to our house, and my mom, dad, aunt, uncle, nephew, grandma, and I would gather around a table chock-full of some mix of mashed potatoes, potato salad, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, in addition to dumplings, noodles, and scallion pancakes. Depending on the year and how my mom is feeling, our Thanksgiving may look more Chinese or more American— our balance of culture is always in flux. No matter what else happens on the table, though, what’s never missing is the turkey.
Turkey is not a glamorous meat, however; even the best turkey is still not as good as, say, a very average steak. Turkey is, in truth, very average, despite all the Thanksgiving pageantry centered on it—the drawing of hand turkeys in third grade, the annual presidential pardon of one lucky bird, the giant turkey in a pilgrim hat on the Macy’s Day Parade float.
So why, do Americans devour a whopping 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving, (according to the National Turkey Foundation)? In short, we eat it because we always have. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie all provide a common root for the holiday, even though we are long past the age of pilgrims. Something about the turkey enraptures us every Thanksgiving.
Maybe it’s just the time-honored tradition, or maybe it’s the forced sense of family—try eating a whole turkey by yourself—but whatever the reason, turkey has lodged itself in the national consciousness as being inextricably tied to Thanksgiving. Every family may have a different idea of what Thanksgiving means, and every family may celebrate Thanksgiving differently, but one thing that will link us all tomorrow is this misnamed bird.