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Kitchen Histories: The Iconic Thanksgiving Turkey

Nov 22, 2012

by Sarah Lohman

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.

In May of 1898, the United States Post Office lowered the postage for picture postcards from 2 cents to only a penny. Soon after, the “postal craze” struck and sending colorful picture cards across the country became an enormous fad, particularly around the holidays. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter dominated, but every event, from Rosh Hashanah to Washington’s Birthday, could be marked with a penny postcard.

A quick search of Etsy reveals a proliferation of Thanksgiving-themed cards from the turn of the century, each with the most fascinating imagery. One features a turkey, recklessly running in front of a waving American flag, a fork and knife already protruding from his body. On another card, a cherubic angel in a chef’s hat sharpens a mean-looking knife over a golden, roast bird. My personal favorite shows a noble, brown-plumed turkey that has just walked into the kitchen. On the table, a full Thanksgiving spread, festooned with American flags, featuring one of his roasted brethren. The live turkey’s pose is active but hesitant, as though he was about to step into the room to make good on a dinner invite when he realizes what’s for dinner.

Sarah Lohman

It’s hilarious and horrifying all at once.

But who is this hesitant house guest — this big brown bird, resplendent with plumage, who is portrayed as the embodiment of Thanksgiving nostalgia itself? Is the turkey on our Thanksgiving table the same iconic bird of these pictures? And are we still serving the same bird that we ate a century ago? To find the answer, I decided to track down an iconic Thanksgiving turkey and meet him in person.

My search led me to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, an hour north of New York City; it’s amazing how fast skyscrapers fade to rocky cliffs when you take the train up the Hudson. A working farm which also functions as teaching facility to train a new generation of young farmers, I discovered that Stone Barns raises two breeds of turkeys for the holiday season: Broad Breasted Whites, the most common Thanksgiving turkey; and a heritage breed, Bourbon Reds.

I was introduced to livestock farm manager Craig Haney as he was herding 160 Broad Breasted White turkeys into a barn. Haney had spent most of his life working at historical agriculture sites before coming to Stone Barns nine years ago, and it’s given him a fondness for heritage breeds.

Sarah Lohman

Livestock apprentice Meghan Schilling herds a rafter of Broad Breasted White turkeys.

The Broad Breasted Whites have only been around since about the 1920s. These aren’t at all the majestic birds of Thanksgiving imagery, but these are the birds that will grace most of America’s dinner tables today. As they were moved into the barn, they looked and moved like baby dinosaurs, cooing and gibbering to each other, and stopping occasionally to peck at the ground. Although they each weighed around sixteen pounds, they looked rather scrawny and juvenile in their slim coat of white feathers.

“They are young,” Craig explained. After only six months, the BBWs have packed on enough weight to be ready for the dinner table. Their breed makes them more efficient at converting food into muscle, particularly in terms of breast meat. They were intentionally bred this way, as was their white plumage: “When they’re plucked, a white feather makes the carcass look cleaner.” A dark feather leaves black “pinfeathers” on the carcass when it’s plucked: little black dots that are difficult to remove, and is thought of as aesthetically unpleasing. So while the BBWs may not look like much in the field, it’s their post-mortem aesthetic that’s the most important: when roasted and on the Thanksgiving table, they’re beautiful.

Sarah Lohman

A male - or Tom - Bourbon Red Turkey displays his plumage.

We crossed the farm to look at the other breed raised at Stone Barns, the Bourbon Reds. I surveyed a field of turkeys with deep mahogany plumage, grandly displaying their feathers with fanned tails and puffed up chests; they were picture perfect. In fact, they looked every bit the traditional turkey, right down to the red and blue waddle things on their face.

The Bourbon Reds are an older breed, appearing sometime right around the turn of the 19th century. They’re closer to their wild cousins and act like it; they were a constant clatter of fighting, foraging, roosting, and exploring. Their athleticism affects their flavor. Craig says, “The birds are more active, so the dark meat they have is darker. It makes for a richer flavor and proportionally more dark meat.”

But the Bourbon Reds are expensive to raise: they’re harder to find in hatcheries, and require twice as much time as the BBWs to get to the appropriate weight. That means twice as much labor and money invested. The result is a bird that’s four times more expensive than your average grocery store turkey.

So why is it important to raise heritage breeds? “To hang on to the genetics. It’s important not to put all of our agricultural eggs in one basket.” If a disease comes along, if there’s no variation in the genetic pool, it could wipe out an entire species.

“There are very sentimental reasons as well,” Craig adds, “just preserving some of our heritage and paying respect to it.”

Sarah Lohman

Water beads on the feathers of a one-year-old Bourbon Red turkey during a snowstorm at Stone Barns Agricultural Center.

A century ago, this iconic turkey would have also been the roast bird on you dinner table, but that’s no longer the case. Heritage breeds like the Bourbon Red have been fighting a losing battle with the Broad Breasted Whites for most of the 20th century. Only a few determined consumers will seek out a heritage breed this Thanksgiving, and they must be willing to pay a premium price for a dark meat bird. If, like me, you get your turkey at the local grocery store, you’ll be buying a Broad Breasted White.

What hasn’t changed is the significance of the turkey to the Thanksgiving holiday: he is central. The proud image of a Bourbon Red still adorns every grade school pin-board that represents the holiday.  And on every dinner table, a golden, steaming, roasted Broad Breasted White will be the main attraction. Each family’s heritage and tradition is expressed in an ever-adaptable litany of sweet potato casserole, fattoush or lasagna — but the turkey is immobile.

Thanksgiving Day Turkeys Art 1907 postcard
Thanksgiving Day Turkeys Art 1907 postcard
$3.50 USD

2 Featured Comments

  • rosebudshome

    rosebudshome from rosebudshome said 6 years ago Featured

    Thanks you for showing us the first greeting cards of thanksgiving, the humor surprised me. I love the tradition of this holiday and the love and togetherness it brings with it.

  • HandiworkinGirls

    HandiworkinGirls from HandiworkinGirls said 6 years ago Featured

    Thanks for the interesting turkey facts. We have only eaten the white turkeys, but now I'm curious about the flavor difference. It may be worth it to track down the heritage breeds!

39 comments

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 6 years ago

    I am obsessed with all things postal and am saddened that these days people only tend to send Christmas cards, birthday cards, and invitations to two events: weddings and graduations. There are so many other events and holidays to celebrate and denote by sending a greeting! ...And Thanksgiving is a perfect example. This year, I made sure to send out many of the thanksgiving cards I sell in my shop, stamping the envelope with Thanksgiving postage of course!

  • rosebudshome

    rosebudshome from rosebudshome said 6 years ago Featured

    Thanks you for showing us the first greeting cards of thanksgiving, the humor surprised me. I love the tradition of this holiday and the love and togetherness it brings with it.

  • tricotaria

    Andreia from tricotaria said 6 years ago

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

  • FranceGallery

    France Gallery from FranceGallery said 6 years ago

    Love the turkeys! We keep a few as pets and they are just great to have around.

  • paintingwhimsy

    Karen from paintingwhimsy said 6 years ago

    Love Central Pa where the Turkeys are still abundant and seen on a daily basis...wild and free and not stuffed on a platter..YET..

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 6 years ago

    Interesting! We have a nearby farm that raises Bourbon Reds.

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 6 years ago

    Interesting!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 6 years ago

    Very interesting. Happy Thanksgiving all.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    I always think turkeys are weird birds, they have such a strange look to them!

  • birdie1

    Laurie from BirdinHandVTG said 6 years ago

    Living in the Midwest, near a rural area, I've had the delight of seeing turkeys in the wild - unusual looking birds!

  • VictoryBags

    Victoria Gray from VictoryBags said 6 years ago

    Great article! I hadn't thought about heritage turkey before, but I love the idea of serving one for thanksgiving. Learning about the modern turkey was fascinating too.

  • RetroRevivalBoutique

    RetroRevivalBoutique from RetroRevivalBoutique said 6 years ago

    Fabulous article, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone! (^__^)

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 6 years ago

    I love the vintage post cards and the turkey breeds story. Thank you very much!

  • AtomicAttic

    Miles and Aimee Harrison from AtomicAttic said 6 years ago

    Great Cards!

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 6 years ago

    Wow, interesting. You rarely think about these things.

  • monasweet

    Mona Sweet from MonaCrochetdoll said 6 years ago

    this 2 picture a beautyful. thank you for giving.

  • opendoorstudio

    Martha Layton Smith from opendoorstudio said 6 years ago

    Happy Thanksgiving all!

  • SamOssie

    Sam Osborne from SamOsborneStore said 6 years ago

    Super interesting article! Also, love the job title "historic gastronomist", amazing :) S

  • bittersweetdesign

    Elizabeth Pickett from bittersweetdesign said 6 years ago

    Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday - made even more so by the birth of my two daughters - one on Thanksgiving Day, and the other one day later. I have quite the collection of vintage pottery turkeys - and the wonderful postcards! I love that Stone Barns Center looks not only to the future - but also to the past in raising of their turkeys. Kudos! and as Martha from opendoorstudio said - Happy Thanksgiving - I hope you are blessed!

  • QuirkMuseum

    Michael Quirk from QuirkMuseum said 6 years ago

    I am so full right now... Nice article and old turkey day cards. I've seen a lot of cool vintage cards for all different occasions. Unfortunately in these days of digital communication, something is lost.

  • Ruthscraftroom

    Ruth from SoapsandSewing said 6 years ago

    What a beautiful tribute to today. Thank you for sharing!

  • VeronicaRStudio

    Veronica from VeronicaRussekJoyas said 6 years ago

    So cool, love the antique postcards!!! But I could never go to a farm and look at the turkeys and then have one on my table, it wouldn't be the same. Funny thing is, my dad is a cattleman with a ranch with cows on it and everything. When I learned where my red meat came from, I couldn't eat it for about a year, until the shock wore off. I could never go to the ranch with the same carefree innocence as when I was a child as well.... Looking at those cows in the eye made me feel deeply for them.

  • VeronicaRStudio

    Veronica from VeronicaRussekJoyas said 6 years ago

    But the antique cards are really cool! :)

  • WingedWorld

    Vickie Moore from WingedWorld said 6 years ago

    Fascinating article and it's so ironic how we prefer to look at a heritage breed, but eat the boring breast-meat heavy white birds. This summer I visited a small, family owned farm to watch them hand-slaughter and process their own chickens. It was a day-long affair and incredibly labor-intensive. All of it was done outside in the open air, and the chickens had happy free-range lives before their day of reckoning. So much different than the factory farms and factory-style processing facilities that produce most of the birds we eat!

  • guext65

    JW Lin from JWPersonalShop said 6 years ago

    great job!

  • NicoAndMooMoo

    NicoAndMooMoo from NicoAndMooMoo said 6 years ago

    For my Italian-style Thanksgiving dinner we had duck. Definitely smaller, but tasty tasty! Happy Black Friday to you all! :)

  • PinwheelStudio

    Whitney from PinwheelStudio said 6 years ago

    Such a wonderful history! Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, and every year we have a turkey from a local family-owned turkey farm. I wouldn't trade it for anything! And those postcards are fabulous!

  • VandaFashion

    Vanda Fashion from VandaFashion said 6 years ago

    Very cool guys GOOD LUCK AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS :))

  • AdrienneLojeck

    Adrienne Lojeck from WingsOfClay said 6 years ago

    Traditions are constantly evolving; when we set a (vegetarian) Thanksgiving table, free of any turkeys or other animals, it creates an opportunity to forge new traditions. Roasted nut loaf, whole grain stuffing loaded with vegetables... Most importantly, shifting what we serve shifts the focus back on guests and family. After all, Thanksgiving is about the common denominator of GRATITUDE, no matter what's on the table!

  • LeasaMarie

    Leasa from LeasaDesigns said 6 years ago

    Gobble!

  • PrayerNotes

    Prayer Notes by Cynthia from PrayerNotes said 6 years ago

    Love this holiday, as there is so much to be thankful for.... I am thankful to be here and to be able to make others smile. Loved this article! ~Cynthia

  • HandiworkinGirls

    HandiworkinGirls from HandiworkinGirls said 6 years ago Featured

    Thanks for the interesting turkey facts. We have only eaten the white turkeys, but now I'm curious about the flavor difference. It may be worth it to track down the heritage breeds!

  • FoxyGloves23

    Marie Cashin from MEmbroideries said 6 years ago

    Thanks...... everyone

  • pasin

    pasin from Pasin said 6 years ago

    Love the history!

  • AlfredRedmond1

    Alfred Redmond from LogoWizard said 6 years ago

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom said 6 years ago

    I do not like turkey, but this was an interesting article. Fun fact about the postcard craze in 1898. Thanks for sharing. Happy bleated Thanksgiving to everyone!

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas from FreakyPeas said 6 years ago

    I'm not a big fan of eating turkey..we did not cook one this year....but, I love the history in this article....and the post cards are hilarious.

  • RECCIEatETSY

    Clarice Booth from RECCIEatETSY said 6 years ago

    After looking at the colorful details on these birds, I think the turkeys are actually very pretty. I like the cards too.Blessings,

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