With Thanksgiving next week, let¿s literally talk turkey

November 12, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

In a little more than a week, we will celebrate the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for, and I hope you are. Today, however, I am going to talk about the guest of honor at most of your Thanksgiving tables, the turkey.

The turkey is often one of the most misunderstood animals. They are often thought of as dumb and awkward, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was Benjamin Franklin who thought so highly of the turkey, he wanted it to be the national bird and not the Bald Eagle.

The wild turkey was a very important food animal to Native Americans and was most certainly one of the many meats that was eaten at the first Thanksgiving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

However, contrary to popular belief, it was not new to the Pilgrims.

Europeans had for centuries eaten turkey.

In addition to gold, silver and other riches, the Spanish explorers took turkeys back to the Old World.

Turkeys were raised domestically in Europe since the 1500s, with breeds developed that we still know today, such as the Spanish Black and the Royal Palm.

William Strickland, a British mariner, is widely credited for introducing the turkey to England in the 16th Century. Documents of English farmer Thomas Tusser from 1573 note that turkey is among the fare of the farmers’ Christmas table. Historical records from Jamestown, Va., indicate that turkeys were sent from England to the settlement in 1607.

What about today, you might ask? Well, you already know that turkey is on millions of holiday tables and turkey shows up millions of other places, too.

Nationally, consumption of turkey is approximately 18 pounds per year per person.

As I look back to my childhood, I would have never imagined turkey ham, turkey bacon and turkey sausage or turkey hot dogs.

Foods that were never intended to be healthy are now made with turkey, a high-protein, low-fat choice, packing more protein and less total fat per portion than chicken, beef or pork, to quote the industry.

Minnesota boasts it is the No. 1 turkey producing and processing state in the U.S., with 250 family farmers raising approximately 49 million turkeys annually.

These farmers — many of whom are third-, fourth- and even fifth- generation turkey farmers — know how to raise a wholesome and quality turkey for consumers.

And like so many other segments of agriculture, turkey farmers produce twice as much meat with half as much feed compared to the 1930s. This is all done with turkeys that are both hormone and steroid free. Genetic improvements, through selection and breeding, better feed formulation and modern management practices are responsible for the larger turkeys produced today.

So whether you like white meat or dark or you prefer a turkey sandwich made from leftovers, I wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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