- Historians do not believe that turkey was eaten during the First Thanksgiving in 1621, according to Ashley Rose Young at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
- The turkey's popularity spread for practical reasons such as its size and the convenience of being on people's properties.
- The true answer to why we eat turkey, among other popular Thanksgiving foods like pumpkin and cranberry, was largely due to migration from New England, according to Young.
Alexander Hamilton once proclaimed: "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." Hamilton's proclamation became reality, and according to the National Turkey Federation, about 45 million to 46 million turkeys are consumed each Thanksgiving.
Ashley Rose Young, a historian with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, told CNBC that Hamilton was known to be a proponent of turkey. "This was all part of a larger idea of bringing a national sensibility to the United States through consuming the same kinds of foods," she said, in an interview with "The News with Shepard Smith". "So turkey, being a bird indigenous and native to North America really set the American table apart, for example, from the British table."
Young explained that historians do not believe that turkey was eaten during the "First Thanksgiving" in 1621 and that the likely meats at the table were venison, geese and duck. She said that it became a powerful myth promoted by literature and author Sarah Hale, who more than 240 years later pushed the idea of making Thanksgiving a national holiday for decades. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it holiday in 1863.
"[Hale] thought that the pilgrims and the Wampanoag likely consumed turkey, although we know now that's not historically accurate. But her vision was powerful, and it really spread the word about turkey to people living outside of New England, and into those other parts of the United States," she said.
The true answer to why we eat turkey, among other popular Thanksgiving foods like pumpkin and cranberry, was largely due to migration from New England, according to Young. "Turkey became the national dish that we eat on Thanksgiving through a decades and century-long process of the regional foods of New England consumed during traditional harvest festivals, making their way through the United States as Americans living on the east coast and in the U.S. south moved westward over time."
The Smithsonian's historian added that the bird's popularity spread for more pragmatic reasons too. First, it was native to North America and already lived on people's properties, so it was convenient. Second, unlike a chicken, 15-pound to 20-pound turkeys can feed a lot of people.
Mike Geller — who owns Mike's Organic, a Connecticut-based farm-to-home delivery service and organic market — echoed Rose Young's sentiments. He noted, however, that 2020 marks one of the first years that consumers are requesting smaller turkeys due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"A turkey on Thanksgiving is tradition, and this year, even as gatherings are notably different and shrunken down, it's interesting to see people still seeking out the turkey, albeit for the most part in the smallest size they can get it," explained Geller. "Typically we sell the same number of small turkeys as we do the largest size turkey; however, this year at Mike's Organic we have sold 10 times as many small turkeys as large turkeys."