We’ve all seen stories of how rising inflation drives up the price of Thanksgiving dinner in 2021. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, a traditional feast will cost 14% more this year. The good news is that almost all of the rise is due to temporary upheavals resulting from the unprecedented COVID-19 recession and drastic change in consumer behavior, and next year is expected to be much more normal as chains d supply adapt.
But it’s clear that a much more pressing question on everyone’s mind is: why have turkey on Thanksgiving and where do all those sweet tooths come from?
The “first Thanksgiving” probably did not feature a turkey, contrary to popular mythology. More likely, ducks or geese as well as game were prepared by settlers for the 1621 harvest to which the natives of Wampanoag brought their agricultural produce. The only extant record of the famous gathering of 1621 is a diary of Plymouth settler Edward Winslow which only mentions that “wild birds” were presented at the feast. A later 1647 memoir by William Bradford describes the abundance of wild turkey in the area. Bradford’s account has been published widely, possibly contributing to the early traditions of the Thanksgiving bird.
Periodic days of thanksgiving were common among Puritan settlers, dating back to the harvest festivals of their own European traditions. At the dawn of the American Republic, presidents occasionally declared national days of thanksgiving, beginning with George Washington in 1789. Following this celebratory meal, Alexander Hamilton is said to have said, “No one should be.” refrain from eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day. (It is said that Hamilton then played Lin-Manuel Miranda in a popular Broadway production). By the time of President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, the Thanksgiving turkey tradition had taken off.
In the aftermath of World War II, President Harry Truman urged Americans to help send food aid to a still devastated Europe by observing “Poultry Free Thursdays.” The effort sparked a backlash that led Truman to abandon the idea, but not before the Turkish National Federation sardonically presented the president with a live bird. The tradition continued as a light kick-off to the National Day festivities.
Americans gobbled up 5.3 billion pounds, an average of 16 pounds of turkey per person in 2020, nearly double their per capita consumption in 1970. The production of the 2,500 American turkey farmers was 7.3 billion pounds, of which about 2 billion pounds exported to other countries. More than half of all production comes from just four states: Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and Indiana. The industry is estimated to have an economic impact of $ 109 billion on the US economy and directly employs approximately 440,000 Americans.
An average adult turkey weighs around 30 pounds, but the largest bird on record was bred in the UK in 1989 and tipped the scales at 86 pounds, about the size of a large dog. Hens are typically sold as whole birds for the dinner table, while toms are typically made into turkey products like cold cuts, sausage, and ground turkey.
Turkey is an important trading partner of the United States, exporting machinery and cement to the United States and importing airplanes and steel from America, according to the US trade representative. Washington established diplomatic relations with Ankara in 1927 and Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952.
Oops, sorry Turkey. Save that thought for our article next month on international trade.
It is not true that Ben Franklin advocated for the turkey as the national bird, although he favorably compared it to the bald eagle that eventually appeared on the Great Seal of the United States. The eagle, Franklin said, was “a bird of bad character”, while the turkey “though a little vain and foolish, is a bird of courage.” Franklin had not yet perfected his bifocals.
Of course, not everyone will be sitting down to prune a bird this Thursday. Unfortunately, however, no industry statistics were readily available for tofurkey farming in the United States.
I wish everyone a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
Christopher A. Hopkins is a chartered financial analyst.