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?