There is an enduring myth that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird. The story goes that Franklin thought the turkey — a true native of our land — was more industrious and diligent than the overhyped fish eagle that became our national symbol.
That tale has been debunked (by the Smithsonian, among others), although it does have some roots in truth. The origins of this myth are thought to come from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter in 1784, which in part read:
“For my own part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”
It’s hard to tell whether Franklin’s letter was tongue in cheek or serious. But he actually was critical of the first design of the presidential seal, which featured an eagle holding arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other. Franklin thought that eagle looked more like a turkey, which may have led to his letter.
It turns out, serious or not, the turkey might have been a good candidate for our national symbol. While the eagle has become the most identifiable animal symbol of our nation’s far-reaching power, the turkey is perhaps a good metaphor for our domesticated side.
Today, across our nation, millions of families will sit down to a dinner that will feature as the main event a cooked (or, depending on the chef) an over- or under-cooked) turkey. According to the University of Illinois Extension service, 46 million turkeys will be consumed by Americans today — out of about 250 million turkeys raised in the United States this year. Compare this with 1920, when farmers raised about one turkey for every 29 Americans. This was shortly before first lady Grace Coolidge received the gift of a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925, and about three decades before President Harry Truman is credited with the first presidential pardon of the White House Thanksgiving bird (although Truman’s pardon being the first is disputed).
This bird has become almost synonymous with Thanksgiving and has changed as our country has changed. As we have grown larger, so have turkeys: The typical turkey on the American table today weighed more than 30 pounds at slaughter, almost double from the standard 30 years ago. This growth is the product of years of breeding for bigger birds; as Americans have demanded larger turkeys, the producers have responded.
This process of change in the bird itself is controversial. The turkey of today grows far faster and far heavier than the bird of our ancestors, mostly in massive operations that are more akin to industrial production than a farm. This in turn has led to the proliferation of “heritage” birds, or turkeys that have not been bred for size, which retain the flavor and character of generations past.
Furthermore, the variety of preparations of this holiday food have multiplied. As America’s cooking savvy has grown, home cooks have sought out new ways to prepare the meal, introducing new flavors, variations and layers of complexity. From brined to deep-fried to the full-on, no-holds-barred turducken (a chicken cooked inside a duck cooked inside a turkey), the turkey that graces the Thanksgiving plate is more likely to be prepared in a nontraditional way.
Thus the turkey symbolizes the excesses and the triumph of America, which is always striving for something better, something more, something improved. Yet it still retains its reminder of the origins of our country — and the fact that from the start of this tradition, the immigrants who reached these shores were just happy to be here, alive.
While many lament the creep of the holiday shopping season into the Thanksgiving tradition, the omnipresent turkey remains a symbol of one of the most basic and cherished traditions of America — gathering around the table to give thanks and be grateful for what we have.
Maybe Franklin’s letter wasn’t so far off.