Boomers Had Their Turkey (and Ate It, Too)

If it seems that turkey — the staple protein for every non-vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner — has changed since our early boomer years, it’s because it has. There have been dramatic changes to the bird we consumed through the years, most noticeably since our parents’ time in the Great Depression.

The earliest settlers found the wild native bird to be so tasty that they brought some back with them to Europe. In order for heads of state to continue to dine on the exotic poultry, they quickly started to raise turkeys themselves. By the 1700s, the wild varieties had been hunted to near extinction in the Americas, but domesticated turkeys were being cultivated on both sides of the Atlantic.

In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving an official holiday, to be observed on the last Thursday of every November. The turkey was famously associated with the first Thanksgiving dinner — a celebration of the first harvest at the Plymouth Plantation in 1621 — when the Wampanoag Indians introduced the Pilgrims to the bird. It has been a part of our holiday tradition ever since.

By the 1920s, heritage breeds were reintroduced into the wild and the population of wild turkeys has been steadily growing since. Most turkeys were consumed on the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and at that point most were not being hunted, but rather domesticated birds were purchased fresh through a butcher. The variety most served to our parents in their youth was called Standard Bronze. It’s also the type of turkey that is depicted in the famous painting by Norman Rockwell. This variety was known to be lean and with long legs, producing a deep poultry flavor with less white meat and a slightly chewy texture.

During the 1930s, about a quarter of the population was unemployed due to the Great Depression. Many people could not afford a turkey, so smaller varieties were bred. These smaller breeds introduced size differences into the marketplace so more people could enjoy a bird on the holidays. Due to the impact of the Depression on the holiday seasons, in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested changing Thanksgiving to an earlier date so that the Christmas shopping season could be extended to help boost the economy. Congress did not agree, ultimately declaring the fourth Thursday in November the official date by passing Public Law #379.

As the post-war boomer years pushed forward in earnest in the early 1950s, science and technology were introducing all sorts of innovations to the marketplace, including TV dinners and Jell-O salads. Thanks to the widespread adoption of frozen foods, domesticated turkeys could be frozen for shipping across the country and available year ’round. Yet the public’s taste was changing. The overwhelming preference of the 1950s consumer was for more white meat on their turkeys. Breeders complied and produced Broad Breasted Whites. It was a variety specifically created to have larger breasts and shorter legs in order to maximize the amount white meat. The new variety quickly became the norm for boomer families in subsequent years.

Today ninety-nine percent of turkeys consumed on Thanksgiving are the Broad Breasted White variety, though signs point to that fact that tastes may be changing once again. The public’s penchant for white meat hasn’t diminished, but the introduction of heritage breeds, and organic and free-range varieties has tempted a food-conscious generation to taste the difference. Most will say wild heritage breeds and turkeys allowed to roam on farms taste better. Others point to the growing concern over how the birds are treated in their march to the marketplace, including the use of antibiotics that control disease while helping the birds to grow larger.

No matter in which camp boomers find themselves, it is certainly true that more turkey is consumed today than when we were young. It is the fastest growing type of meat, known not only for its taste but also because it contains fewer calories than other meats, and is generally less expensive. Our annual consumption of the bird has doubled since 1974, from 8.7 pounds per capita to more than 17 pounds last year. By contrast, in 1935 only 1.7 pounds of turkey was consumed per capita. There is no doubt that turkey is not just for Thanksgiving any more.

Mister Boomer clearly recalls some memorable Thanksgiving turkeys of his youth. His mother would clean up her enameled electric roaster that was primarily used on holidays to roast the bird. One year an attempt was made for a more traditional bird variety. It was a tom that Mister B’s parents were not satisfied with, proclaiming for the whole family that it was chewier than previous years, and that the experiment would not be repeated. Mister B, enjoying a turkey leg, could not tell what the fuss was about.

One Thanksgiving in the late 1950s, Mister B’s father decided to invite his entire family over for the holiday dinner. The roaster again was deployed, but this time a Butterball turkey was on the menu. The Butterball brand was known for two things: more white meat (making it a Broad Breasted White variety) and juicier meat due to injections of a flavored butter product. Swift Premium marketed the brand at the time, licensing the rights from Butterball Farms. The bird received rave reviews all around, so Mister B can attest first-hand to the changing tastes of boomer families for more white meat.

Today boomers enjoy turkey sandwiches, turkey bacon, turkey sausages and turkey loaves any time of the year. Yet the Thanksgiving turkey still evokes special memories — past and present — of meals shared with family and friends.

Can you remember the turkeys served on your families’ Thanksgiving tables, boomers?

A Cottage Industry Booms During Boomer Years

The mothers of boomers, being born in the 1920s and ’30s, had difficult teen years. Years of manual labor helping their parents around the house or farm were then made more difficult by the Great Depression of the 1930s, marked by food shortages and the lack of money to purchase it. This was then followed by World War II, and food rationing. During that series of nutritional challenges there wasn’t much reason for women of the middle and lower classes to construct diets focused on losing weight.

While a larger girth among wealthy men was considered a sign of success for decades, it was the opposite for their wives in the 1920s. Upper-crust women of that era furthered the idea of eating slimming foods, exercising and utilizing various technological contraptions in order to maintain or lose weight. The most notable of these predilections was the popularization of the salad lunch. A well-known phrase popularized in that time was, “You can never be too rich or too thin.”

By the time our mothers were married and began having children after the War, life was changing dramatically for American families. The move outward from cities to suburbs meant more time was spent in cars. Inventions like washing machines and dishwashers that had been first introduced over the preceding decades infiltrated the burgeoning middle class, who now had the space and the income to be able to afford them. As a result, women were spared a modicum of the drudgery that comprised housework for the previous American centuries. A bit more leisure time, the advance of daily television programming, less physical labor, less work outside the home, better medical care and less need for walking could have been factors in the weight our mothers began to gain. Naturally, marketers were at-the-ready to first plant the idea in women’s heads that they had a weight problem, then provided solutions to the problem with various products, one of which was a decidedly low-tech food: cottage cheese.

In a nutshell, cottage cheese is the result of milk being heated with an acid (like vinegar) until curds appear and whey is separated. This mixture is then drained, but not pressed, which keeps the curds intact and leaves a small portion of the whey in the product. If the cheese were pressed, it would become pot cheese, farmer cheese or queso blanco, depending on the type of milk being used and elements added. Since cottage cheese can be made on a stovetop, it is believed the term comes from people making cheese in their “cottages” using leftover milk after making butter. The first known use of the term was in 1848.

In the 1950s, dairy manufacturers such as Borden began advertising cottage cheese on TV as a great food for families. High in nutrition, it was soon brought to consumer’s attention that at only 80 to 100 calories per half cup serving, the product could be an aid in dieting. Cookbooks appeared by the dozens to help out the new generation of suburban moms, and they were overflowing with recipes for making and utilizing cottage cheese — as a substitute for other cheeses in recipes or eaten by itself with fruit, vegetables and the quintessential food of the era, Jell-O.

Restaurants, from fine dining establishments down to the local diner, placed cottage cheese on their menus, usually under a heading like, “Dieter’s Special.” While boomers ate cheeseburgers and fries, their moms were often treated to a plate of Iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese and canned fruit.

A typical cottage cheese plate
A typical 1950s and ’60s “Dieter’s Special” would consist of a scoop of cottage cheese with canned fruit (like peaches, pear or pineapple) sitting on a bed of Iceberg lettuce. Photo by Mister Boomer.

Mister Boomer’s mom was one of those women who, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, consumed a lot of cottage cheese for its dietary properties. She would often eat the product for lunch, and sometimes dinner, but it was always the same: a few spoons of the cheese straight from the store-bought container, topped with canned fruit cocktail. Occasionally she dressed it up with a few leaves of Iceberg lettuce, or switched out the fruit cocktail for canned peaches, pineapple or pears, but that was the extent of it.

Mister Boomer tried cottage cheese a few times as a youngster, and he was not impressed with its bland and slightly bitter taste. He would, every now and then when choices in the refrigerator were limited, partake of the product, but only with an equal or greater proportion of canned fruit. Once cottage cheese began being sold with pineapple already mixed into the container, that became his choice if he had to eat it.

A quick survey conducted this past week by Mister B of his boomer friends and co-workers revealed that the group was almost evenly split — around half recalled their moms eating vast quantities of the stuff, while others didn’t see it in their homes.

By the 1970s, cottage cheese lost some of its appeal. It has remained a staple on menus in many places to this day, and can still be purchased at your local supermarket, but the wave of popularity it once enjoyed seems to have moved on to other foods.

What memories of your moms and cottage cheese do you conjure up, boomers?