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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Turkey has cherished history as part of Thanksgiving celebration

STILLWATER, Okla. – Thanksgiving has been a national holiday in the United States since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it so. And from that time, the turkey has been the pinnacle of the Thanksgiving feast.

It holds a place of honor on most all Thanksgiving tables across America. While some families may prefer other options such as pork or beef, turkey, whether roasted, baked or deep fried, is still the traditional favorite. It is so well liked, turkey consumption had doubled since 1970.

Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist, said this is due in part to consumers’ recognition of turkey’s great taste, as well as its nutritional value.

“Back in 1970, people ate about eight pounds of turkey per person, per year. Today that number stands at 16 pounds per person, per year,” Brown said. “The all-time highest year of consumption was in 1995 with consumers eating 17.7 pounds of turkey each year. While that is still a lot of turkey, it is the fourth protein choice among American consumers. We typically tend to eat more chicken, pork and beef.”

Last year, more than 233.1 million turkeys were raised in the United States, and of those, more than 212 million were consumed throughout the year. The National Turkey Federation estimates 45 million of those were part of the Thanksgiving holiday, while 22 million were served at Christmas and 19 million at Easter.

But did you know there was a time when the turkey was close to being extinct? In the early 1900s, the population reached a record low of about 30,000 birds due to extensive hunting. Fortunately for all those turkey lovers across the country, restoration programs across North America have bolstered the turkey population back up to about 7 million today.

When it comes to shopping for the Thanksgiving main course, some consumers may opt for a bird that is just big enough to feed those gathered around the table. However, others are thinking beyond the main meal. There are a multitude of delicacies the family can enjoy for several days following the main food fest. The list of options is nearly endless when you consider turkey sandwiches, turkey and noodles, turkey tetrazzini or even a turkey bowl, complete with leftover mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn and gravy.

Brown said some people may shy away from eating too much turkey in one sitting because they feel like taking a nap after the meal.

“Studies have shown the other carbohydrate-rich favorites served alongside the turkey, which increases the number of tryptophans in the brain, are more likely the cause for that post-dinner snooze,” she said. “On the bright side, turkey is listed among the top 10 foods for your eyes because it’s rich in zinc. As an added bonus, turkey also has the B-vitamin niacin, which protects against cataracts.”

Here are a few more interesting facts about the star of most Thanksgiving feasts:

  • White meat is preferred in the United States, while many other countries choose the dark meat.
  • The average turkey is about 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat.
  • Neal Armstrong’s first meal on the moon was a foil packet of roasted turkey with all the trimmings.
  • Turkeys have about 3,500 feathers at maturity, most of which are composted or otherwise disposed. Some are used to make Native American costumes or as quills for pens.
  • The naturally mild taste of turkey readily combines with different seasonings.
  • Only tom turkeys gobble, thus the nickname gobblers.
  • An adult gobbler weighs 16 pounds to 22 pounds on average. Hens tip the scale at 8 pounds to 12 pounds.
  • The dangly appendage on a turkey’s face is called a snood, while the red, fleshy, dangly bit under the chin is called a wattle.
  • Domesticated turkeys do not fly, but wild turkeys can fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.
  • Since 1947, the NTF has presented the President of the United States with a live turkey and two dressed turkeys in celebration of Thanksgiving.
  • There are six subspecies of wild turkey, all native to North America.
  • You can determine the gender of a turkey based on its droppings – males produce spiral-shaped poop and females produce poop shaped like the letter J.
  • Baby turkeys are called poults and eat berries, seeds and insects.

“As you wrap your mind around this turkey trivia, be sure to keep proper food handling and cooking guidelines in mind as you prepare your Thanksgiving feast,” Brown said.




Trisha Gedon
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
Oklahoma State University
136 Agriculture North
Stillwater, OK  74078
405-744-3625 (phone)
405-744-5739 (fax)

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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