We have all seen the stories about how rising inflation is driving 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 nearly all the spike is due to temporary dislocations resulting from the unprecedented COVID-19 recession and the dramatic shift in consumer behavior, and next year should be much more normal as supply chains adapt.
But clearly a far more pressing question on everyone's mind is this: Why have turkey on Thanksgiving, and where do all those gobblers come from?
The "first Thanksgiving" likely did not feature turkey, contrary to popular mythology. More probably, duck or geese along with venison were prepared by the colonists for the gathering in 1621 to which the Wampanoag natives brought their agricultural produce. The only extant record of the famous 1621 gathering is a journal by Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow that mentions only that "wild fowl" was featured at the feast. A later 1647 memoir by William Bradford describes the abundance of wild turkey in the area. Bradford's account was widely published, perhaps contributing to the early traditions of the Thanksgiving bird.
Periodic days of thanksgiving were common among Puritan colonists tracing to the harvest festivals of their own European traditions. By the dawn of the American Republic, presidents would occasionally declare national days of thanksgiving, beginning with George Washington in 1789. Following that celebration meal, Alexander Hamilton is said to have remarked: "No person should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day." (It is rumored that Hamilton later went on to portray Lin-Manuel Miranda in a popular Broadway production). By the time of President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863, the tradition of the Thanksgiving turkey had taken flight.
In the aftermath of World War II, President Harry Truman encouraged Americans to help send food aid to a still-devastated Europe by observing "poultryless Thursdays." The effort sparked a backlash that led Truman to abandon the idea, but not before the National Turkey Federation sardonically presented the president with a live bird. The tradition continued as a lighthearted kickoff to the nation's holiday festivities.
Americans gobbled up 5.3 billion pounds or an average of 16 pounds of turkey per person in 2020, almost double their per capita consumption in 1970. Production by the 2,500 U.S. turkey farmers was 7.3 billion pounds including roughly 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 U.S. economy and directly employs around 440,000 Americans.
An average mature turkey weighs around 30 pounds, but the largest bird on record was raised in the U.K. in 1989 and tipped the scales at a whopping 86 pounds, about the size of a large dog. Hens are typically sold as whole birds headed for the dinner table, while toms are usually processed into turkey products like deli meat, sausage and ground turkey.
According to the U.S. Trade Representative, Turkey is an important U.S. trading partner, exporting machinery and cement to the U.S. and importing aircraft and steel from America. Washington established diplomatic relations with Ankara in 1927, and Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952.
Oops, sorry wrong Turkey. Hold that thought for our piece next month on international trade.
It is not true that Ben Franklin advocated for the turkey as the national bird, although he did favorably compare it to the bald eagle that ultimately appeared on the Great Seal of the United States. The eagle, Franklin said, was "a bird of bad moral character," while the turkey "though a little vain and silly, is a bird of courage." Franklin had not yet perfected his bifocal spectacles.
Of course, not everyone will sit down to carve a bird this Thursday. Sadly, however, no industry statistics were readily available for tofurkey farming in the U.S.
Wishing everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving.
Christopher A. Hopkins is a chartered financial analyst.