The History of America's Beloved Turkey

Thanksgiving Turkey
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady takes a bite out of a turkey leg. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

One Thanksgiving in my early 20s, I had a mountain of work to do and decided to take advantage of the long weekend by spending it solo, forgoing the enormous feast I always made for friends and assorted stragglers. Instead, on the day itself, I cooked a pious lunch of poached trout, sautéed spinach, and a lone boiled potato. I got a lot accomplished—and it was definitely the only holiday during which I ever lost a pound—but I did not feel virtuous, I felt depressed. I missed my turkey. Worse, there were no leftovers.

As it turns out, the pilgrims at Plymouth probably didn't have turkey either. Nor did they have the stuffing (the dearth of flour meant there was no bread to make it with), rolls (ditto), potatoes (most Europeans still thought they were poisonous), pumpkin pie (pumpkin and winter squash were served boiled), or cranberries (they'd yet to be introduced) that we now equate with the Thanksgiving table. We know for sure that in preparation for that first feast in 1621, Governor Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild geese and ducks. They may or may not have returned with a turkey or two as well, and possibly a swan, but they definitely augmented their bounty by copious amounts of venison (Bradford was presented with at least five deer), cod, clams, and lobsters.

It is unclear exactly when Thanksgiving became so inextricably bound with the turkey, but by 1941, when FDR signed the law making the fourth Thursday of November a federal holiday, lobster and clams and venison had long been gone from the national menu. Six years later, reps of the National Turkey Federation presented President Truman with one live bird and two dressed ones on the White House lawn, a tradition that continues—though I'll bet the birds given to President Obama will not be nearly as tasty as those enjoyed by the Trumans.

Until about the middle of the last century, most of the turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving would have been what we now call "heritage breeds," including the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, White Holland, Naragansett, and Jersey Buff varieties. These turkeys are gorgeous, hardy creatures, developed in Europe and America over hundreds of years and rich in flavor. Though they are the ancestors to the Broad-Breasted White, a sort of made-up breed that arose in the 1960s with the advent of industrial turkey farms (the Broad-Breasted Bronze was mostly abandoned because its dark pinfeathers put off consumers), they bear little resemblance to that now ubiquitous bird in taste or texture.

Today more than 99 percent of turkeys sold in America come from the roughly 270 million raised on factory farms each year. These birds are bred to be so literally broad-breasted that by the time they are 8 weeks old, they are too fat to walk, much less procreate—every Broad-Breasted White on the market is the product of artificial insemination. They are kept in giant barns, given antibiotics to prevent disease, and fed constantly so that they reach maturity in almost half the time it takes a heritage turkey. The result is bland, mushy meat that we have come to equate with tenderness, but in reality processors inject the dressed birds with saline solutions and vegetable oils to improve "mouth feel" and keep the oversize breasts from drying out.

Such is the big-breasted ideal that Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine, admitted enhancing the breast size of the turkey on the magazine's November cover—much as a fashion magazine might shave inches off a human model. But we used to fatten (and flavor) them the old-fashioned way. In 1881 a volume called Los Angeles Cookery urged readers to "get your turkey six weeks before you need it; put him in a small yard; give him walnuts—one the first day, and increase every day one until he has nine; then go back to one and up to nine until you kill him, stuffing him twice with corn meal each day, in which you put a little chopped onion and celery if you have it."

The good news is that there is a growing constituency of heritage-turkey breeders that will do all that for you. Local Harvest operates an online store from which you can purchase a turkey from its nationwide network of farmers. These turkeys, we are told, "scratch, eat clover and grass, chase grasshoppers," and receive rations of noncommercial feed mix devoid of antibiotics. Their meat is finer and denser, and because they develop a thin layer of fat between 6 and 7 months of age, they are also "self-basting."

This means you can forgo a lot of the rigmarole we've come to rely on to make the industrial turkeys taste like something—all the tedious brining and marinating and stuffing of flavored butters under the skin. At, the wonderful Web site that also offers heritage turkeys, the recipe posted is refreshingly simple: season the turkey's cavity with salt, pepper, sprigs of thyme and/or sage, and a quartered onion; rub the outside with oil and salt, put it in a 500-degree oven for 30 minutes; cover the breast with foil and roast at 350 until an inserted thermometer reaches 161 degrees.

I plan to do exactly that (though I may also deep-fry a second bird according to the recipe in the gorgeous and excellent new Blackberry Farm Cookbook). And in deference to that three-day harvest blowout in Plymouth (as opposed to my misguided ascetic weekend), I will begin the meal with icy raw oysters on the half-shell accompanied by venison sausage and a simple watercress salad (watercress was on that first menu) and perhaps a lobster pan roast. If the pilgrims could live large during tough times, certainly we can too.