Would turkey be so popular if it didn't have its own holiday?

Wild Turkeys Image Gallery These turkeys were just a handful of the millions cooked for Thanksgiving dinners in 2007. See pictures of wild turkeys.
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It might come in fourth on the list of America's top protein choices, but one day out of the year nothing else will do [source: National Turkey Federation]. Every Thanksgiving Day, chicken, beef and pork all step aside and make room for their poultry compadre, the turkey. For turkeys, however, Thanksgiving isn't such a blessing. It's estimated that in 2007, a whopping 46 million turkeys were consumed for the occasion, some suffering the fate of being stuffed not only with stuffing, but also with a duck and a chicken to create a poultry profusion called turducken [source: National Turkey Federation].

The advent of Thanksgiving Day is often portrayed by elementary-aged students -- all decked out in mom-made outfits as Pilgrims and Indians -- as a riotous good time between the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans living near Plymouth Rock and their recently acquired British neighbors in 1621. Although the two groups did share a meal and consequently sign a treaty that lasted more than 50 years, the official national holiday was not decreed until President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Nov. 26, 1863, a national day of giving thanks [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]. Before that, thanksgivings -- days spent in prayer thanking God for some fortuitous event or another -- were periodically celebrated by New England colonists, but not anything like the level of the national Thanksgiving festivities we see today.

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­­Presidents following Lincoln annually proclaimed the holiday the last Thursday in November until 1942 when Franklin D. Roosevelt switched it to the fourth Thursday in November -- not necessarily the last -- in an attempt to kick off the holiday shopping season a touch earlier [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

But turk­ey didn't immediately join the Thanksgiving scene as the staple centerpiece and, interestingly enough, the turkeys that you see in the grocery store today don't really resemble the birds that Pilgrims and Native Americans may or may not have actually feasted on during their notorious meal. Those would have been either wild or domesticated native turkeys that tended to be on the small side, reproduced naturally, lived longer, grew slower and, perhaps most importantly, did not leave a good-looking corpse.

The dark plumage that looks so striking creates tiny pinpricks of pigment in the flesh that turned off many consumers. Because of this, and debates about which size was most appropriate for both private and commercial usage, a breeding campaign was conducted in the United States during the first half of the 20th century in search of a better-selling bird. The modern result is the broad breasted white turkey. These birds are specters of their ancestors; they've been bred to be colorless, larger and have bigger breasts.

Whether you roast it, smoke it, grill it or deep-fry it, turkey has really wedged itself a spot on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table. So how would turkeys have fared on the popularity charts if they weren't the focal point of magnificent Thanksgiving spreads? On the next page, we'll find out just how the scrappy bird was able to peck its way to the top.

Crunching the Numbers: Thanksgiving Turkey

Each year, the National Turkey Federation presents the U.S. president with two live turkeys. Nowadays, those birds receive official pardons during a special ceremony.
Each year, the National Turkey Federation presents the U.S. president with two live turkeys. Nowadays, those birds receive official pardons during a special ceremony.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

­Now let's take a closer look at the golden-brown roast that graces the tables of some 88 percent of American families on Thanksgiving Day [source: National Turkey Federation]. Back in 1929, Americans ate only about 18 million turkeys annually; by 1970, that number was approximately 116 million. In 2007, the number of turkeys raised in the United States was about 272 million, and that wasn't even a peak year. In 1996, U.S. growers produced a record 303 million turkeys [source: USDA]. Now keep in mind, out of the 2007 birds, only about 235 million of those got tossed down the gullets of Americans, about 10 percent were exported -- up from only 1.2 percent in 1990 [source: National Turkey Federation].

When it comes to Thanksgiving, things aren't quite so straightforward. We mentioned earlier that in 2007, 46 million turkeys were eaten in the United States on Thanksgiving Day. At an average of 15 pounds apiece, that's close to 700 million pounds of turkey [source: National Turkey Federation]. But even though Americans have been increasing their turkey consumption over the years (and beginning to export more and more birds), they haven't been solely increasing the number they eat on a certain November night.

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Back in 1970, about 50 percent of the turkey consumed in the United States was eaten around the holidays. Over the years that number has dropped to about 29 percent -- meaning people are eating it throughout the year [source: National Turkey Federation]. We know this because overall turkey consumption has about doubled in that same time period. In 1970, Americans chowed down an average of 8 pounds (a little more than 3 and a half kilograms) of turkey per person per year; that number has now climbed to about 18 pounds [source: National Turkey Federation]. Maybe it's the fact that turkeys tend to be low in fat and high in protein, but whatever the reason, the now-flightless fowls seem to be getting more popular for the dinner table every day.

­­The verdict? Back in the days of disco, people might have been grabbing turkey off the shelves because it was the popular choice for the holiday season. But in the 20th century, the tables are turning. Turkey is a year-round fixture on many menus, and although Thanksgiving is still big business in the industry, turkey would probably retain its popularity even if mutton and lamb tried to muscle their way into that special fall holiday celebration.

Is all this talk of turkey making you sleepy? Well, as you can read in "Is there something in turkey that makes you sleepy?" it's probably not the tryptophan that's the culprit. For more interesting information about poultry and holidays, you can dig into some of the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • AdoptATurkey Web site. (10/21/2008) http://www.adoptaturkey.org/
  • "Broiler, Turkey, and Egg Production: 1970 to 2006." U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. (10/22/2008) http://74.125.45.104/search?q=cache:Q7sRulsBqhIJ:www.census.gov/compendia/ statab/tables/08s0841.xls+Table+841.+%22Broiler,+Turkey,+and+Egg+Production: +1970+to+2006%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a
  • Hesser, Amanda. "Turkey Finds Its Inner Duck (and Chicken)."New York Times. 11/20/2002. (10/21/2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0DE0DD1F30F933A15752C1A9649C8B63
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  • Meikle, Bonnie and Ponoka, Alberta. "Breed Profile: The Beltsville Small White Turkey" FeatherSite.com. (10/21/2008) http://www.feathersite.com/Poultry/Turkeys/BeltsBonnie.html
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  • Reese, Frank et al. "Definition of a Heritage Turkey." American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. (10/21/2008) http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/turkdefinition.html
  • "Thanksgiving Day." Encyclopedia Britannica. (10/21/2008) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/590003/Thanksgiving-Day
  • Tucker, Neely. "A Pardon With All the Trimmings." Washington Post. 11/18/2004. (10/21/2008) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58912-2004Nov17.html
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