In “1776,” the musical now being revived at the Roundabout, John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson get into an argument. The subject? Birds.
Which one should be our national symbol? “The eagle,” Adams insists. “The dove,” Jefferson suggests. “The turkey,” Franklin says.
The eagle is “a scavenger, a thief, a coward and the symbol of more than 10 centuries of European mischief,” Franklin argues.
And the turkey? “A truly noble bird, a native of America, a source of sustenance to our settlers, and an incredibly brave fellow who would not flinch from attacking an entire regiment of British soldiers singlehandedly!”
Franklin, in fact, really did say something like this.
He didn’t go so far as to propose the turkey as our national bird. But he did, in a letter, call the bald eagle a “Bird of bad moral character” as compared with the turkey. “A much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
In “1776,” Franklin loses the battle. But in a sense, he’s won the war.
The eagle is our national symbol. It’s what’s on the quarter. But the turkey is what’s in our heart. And on our Thanksgiving table.
“It’s a holiday tradition, even though it’s not a holiday tradition that has anything to do with the first Thanksgiving,” said Charity Robey, of Culinary Historians of New York.
Focus of the feast
Thanksgiving, and Christmas, for that matter, would be unthinkable without The Big Bird — baked to a golden brown, at the centerpiece of a table crowded with mashed potatoes, candied sweets, carrots, corn, Brussels sprouts, green beans, cranberry sauce and Pillsbury rolls.
Turkey is serious. In the 1990 film “Avalon,” a generations-long family feud is sparked when Dad carves the turkey before the arrival of Uncle Gabriel.
The Old Man in “A Christmas Story” (1983) is a turkey junkie. “Every few hours he would check his carving set to make sure the knife was honed, the fork tines sharp,” the narrator says. Even Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) celebrates his nefarious schemes with a turkey. “Master, dinner is prepared!”
In 1954, Swanson introduced the TV Dinner — the world’s first frozen entrée — and so revolutionized America’s eating habits. Its first offering? Turkey. “Swanson’s logic being that turkey was a festive meal, eaten by most folks only on holidays,” wrote Jane and Michael Stern in their 1990 “Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.”
Of course, turkey has a particular significance in November. “Eating turkey evokes a kind of historical connection to a mythical first Thanksgiving,” said Jack Bouchard, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers.
Though the connection, as Robey pointed out, is pretty dubious.
We don’t know what was carved up at that legendary 1621 feast the pilgrims threw for themselves after their first hard winter. We have only one source for the story: a letter, written by colonist Edward Winslow.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together,” Winslow wrote. Local Wampanoag brought “five deer” to the party. And that’s all we know. Whether the “fowl” were turkey has been debated.
Turkey are indeed native to America, as Franklin noted. Not, of course, the farm-bred, domesticated kind — the Butterball, bursting with white meat, that we all love. Wild turkeys are scrawny and tough.
“They were first domesticated in Mexico or Central America by the Maya,” said Maureen Costura, a professor of liberal arts at the Culinary Institute of America. “The Spanish took domestic turkeys to Europe, where they were quickly adopted.”
Turkey was popular in Colonial America. Its first association with Thanksgiving — not the Thanksgiving, but a Thanksgiving — may have been in 1789, when George Washington proposed a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.” Alexander Hamilton is supposed to have chimed in: “No person should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” Vegans were apparently not consulted.
Birds of a feather
Why the turkey’s association with feasting, with special occasions? That could be due to its resemblance to another bird: the peacock.
Peacock, since the days of the ancient Romans, was the entrée of the rich. It was big, gaudy, colorful — the perfect centerpiece for an imperial orgy, or an upscale 18th-century state dinner. Turkey was the poor man’s peacock.
“There is an old trend inherited from Western European elite dining of serving particularly fancy, elaborate game meats at feasts,” said Bouchard, of Rutgers. “As my colleague Elisa Tersigni has noted, early modern Europeans liked turkey so much because it was a useful substitute for peacock, which itself was loved by rich Europeans.”
Even so, turkey didn’t catch on all at once, and everywhere.
In Spain, folks celebrated Christmas with roasted lamb. In England, goose was the go-to feast. “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.”
A pivot point may be seen in, of all things, “A Christmas Carol.”
Poor Bob Cratchit and his family, you’ll remember, are celebrating their meager Christmas with their usual meager goose. When his boss, Scrooge, in the 1843 Dickens tale, undergoes his miraculous transformation, his first act is — quite literally — to up their game.
“Do you know the poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge asks a passing urchin.
“Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize turkey, the big one.” He gives the boy instructions to buy it, and sends it anonymously to the Cratchits. “It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim!” Scrooge gloats.
Thanksgiving as we know it — and the turkey that crowns the table — really begins in 1863. That’s when President Abraham Lincoln proposed the last Thursday in November as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.”
His proclamation, meant to bind the country together during the Civil War, was actually the brainchild of influential magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. She had written the president, urging it.
For years she’d agitated for an annual Thanksgiving Day in Godey’s Ladies Book — the Martha Stewart Living of its day. The holiday she had in mind was inspired by the harvest festivals she remembered from her New England youth. Roast turkey, savory stuffing, gravy, vegetables and pumpkin pie were all laid out in her 1827 book “Northwood.” That — not the pilgrims — is the real basis for our modern Thanksgiving.
“The central dish at a major meal like Thanksgiving has to be something elaborate,” Bouchard said.
“Something like chicken or pork wouldn’t cut it, especially in the 20th century, when these meats were becoming more common in the U.S.,” he said. “Something like turkey lets the cook show off and puts a big, colorful bird at the center of the table.”
Iconic as the turkey is, popular as it’s always been, it isn’t loved by absolutely everyone.
Some would call it bland. Many would call it hard to prepare. Although the effort is, of course, part of the point.
“They’re ridiculously difficult to cook successfully,” said Robey, of Culinary Historians of New York. “You’re putting a bird, sometimes a 20- or 25-pound bird, in an oven you may be using for the first time this year. It’s kind of like having a Christmas tree in your house. Does it make sense? No, but you do it.”