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Good Question: Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

Why do we eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?
Why do we eat Turkey on Thanksgiving? 03:00

MINNEAPOLIS — In a few days, many Americans will cook a very specific food, one they likely haven't cooked all year until now.

It's a tradition that has us wondering: Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Or ham on Christmas?

Whether you're feeding a small family or shopping for several of them, there's only one star of the upcoming show: turkey.

We talked with shoppers grabbing all the fixings at Cub Foods of Hiawatha Avenue. Almost all had the same answer when asked why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving. They either mentioned tradition or simply said, "because it's what we always ate on that day."

And despite turkey's setbacks, such as getting too dry or lacking flavor, families continue plating the big bird on Thanksgiving.

Ken Albala, a professor and author who teaching the history of how and what people eat, said it began in Europe.

"In the 16th and 17th centuries, the sensibility was that very large dark meat animals were difficult to digest, were not very elegant and they were things peasants ate," he said.

Light fowl however, such as turkeys, were considered elegant and healthy. 

"If you look at elegant tables for that entire century, there's things like peacocks and capons and chickens and very light meat," he said.

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Those European traditions transferred to the new world in the colonies. But that doesn't mean turkey was the feature at the first Thanksgiving meal. Some shoppers guessed maize, others said deer.

Edward Wilson, a pilgrim who attended the famous meal in 1621, wrote about deer being on the menu as well as fowl, which could have meant ducks or geese.

Thanksgiving would gain popularity in the 1800s, eventually becoming a national holiday with cookbooks and newspapers touting recipes.

In 1882, Georgia's Augusta Chronicle stated, "Every person who can afford turkey or procure it will sacrifice the noble American fowl today."

"It's one of the very few foods we still ceremonially present at the table and carve up, the head of the household does," said Albala.

Fast forward roughly a month from Thanksgiving and suddenly there's a different meat featured on the holiday table for those who celebrate Christmas.

When we asked shopper Laurie why people eat ham on that day, she said, "Because my mom brought me up that way and I love ham." Appreciate of pork aside, there's a history lesson there.

It has Germanic and Norse roots dating back centuries involving the god Freyr and his majestic boar. To honor him during the Yuletide and Winter Solstice, a boar or pig would be sacrificed and feasted on. The tradition continued on through Christianity and became a staple on Christmas.

Albala, however, has his own cheeky theory. 

"I think it's just that we don't want turkey again after having gorged on it for Thanksgiving," he said, before pointing out that other countries typically eat turkey on Christmas. 

The other countries also didn't celebrate Thanksgiving a month prior like the United States.

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