Laura Dean Bennett
For generations of Americans, Thanksgiving means – it’s time for turkey.
So intertwined are the two that the thought of having Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey taking its prideful place on the table is practically sacrilegious.
Our children labor over all manner of turkey arts and craft projects at school, many of which are proudly displayed by their parents as Thanksgiving décor and table decorations on the big day.
Turkey salt and pepper shakers, china, meat platters, napkins and paper goods as well as greeting cards are on sale even before Halloween. Heaven forfend that we should not have a house full of this classic symbol of Thanksgiving.
The Butterball Hotline reports every year that it is busier than ever with a myriad of questions from worried “chefs” about how to serve the perfect turkey.
Did you ever wonder how turkey became synonymous with Thanksgiving?
It’s not because it was the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621.
The colonists certainly must have hunted wild turkeys, which were abundant in the New World, but there was no mention of turkey in the Pilgrim’s records of the feast they and the Wampanoag tribe shared.
There may well have been some turkey served that day, but records indicate that venison (brought by the Wampanoag tribe) and fowl (ducks and geese were provided by the Pilgrims) definitely were on the menu.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that turkey took over as Thanksgiving’s main dish.
Just like our modern Christmas traditions, our Thanksgiving traditions were shaped during the Victorian era.
We have Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, to thank for the way we celebrate Christmas.
In his description of an English Christmas in “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens set the standard for how to properly celebrate the holiday.
Christmas trees became an integral part of an English Christmas when Prince Albert brought his German Christmas tree tradition to the palace. It became the fashion throughout the land and from there, the world.
Turkey began to become synonymous with Thanksgiving in 1827 when author Sarah Josepha Hale devoted an entire chapter to the description of a perfect New England Thanksgiving, with a roasted turkey “placed at the head of the table.
Turkey was often a featured part of the New England Thanksgiving meal.
They were plentiful and were hunted regularly, especially in the fall of the year.
A turkey is big enough to feed a large family, makes a beautiful statement on the table, is relatively inexpensive and is as American as apple pie.
After all, before the Bald Eagle was chosen as our national symbol, the turkey was the front runner for the position.
Benjamin Franklin argued it was a far nobler bird than the eagle, and better tasting, too.
Being indigenous to America, the wild turkey was as all-American as a bird could be – the perfect food for an American feast.
Hale was, what these days might be called, “an influencer.” She was the editor of the nationally popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”
It was her contention that Thanksgiving, which had always been popular in New England, should be given pride of place in American culture.
Hale spearheaded the decades-long campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, which finally met with success when President Lincoln signed an executive order to that effect in 1863.
One hundred and sixty years later, Americans still cling to the idea that a roasted turkey is the premier food of Thanksgiving.
Culinary ideas about how to cook the turkey may come and go (Sarah Josepha Hale could probably never have imagined a deep fried or spatchcocked turkey), but the classic roasted bird has never gone out of style.
After the bird has been eaten, it still gives us one more holiday tradition – the breaking of the wishbone.
In many families, mine among them, finding the wishbone bestowed the honor of choosing an opponent for the breaking of it, and potentially being granted one’s wish.
A turkey’s wishbone is actually called the furcular – it’s the fusion of the two clavicles at the top of the turkey’s breast.
Besides bestowing luck on humans, a turkey’s wishbone actually plays an important role for the turkey.
Nature has endowed these large birds with the furcula to help them fly. The elastic nature of the furcula acts like a spring, which flexes when the turkey flaps its wings. The spring releases energy for the wings and assists in getting the heavy birds off the ground.
Breaking the wishbone requires two people – each one holding the tip of one of its ends.
Some families say that the person who ends up with the shorter piece gets their wish but most declare that it’s just the opposite – the person left holding the longer piece of bone is the lucky one whose wish will come true.
One thing is certain – just like in birthday wishes, those about to break a wishbone mustn’t reveal their wish to anyone or it won’t come true.
The belief in the magic of wishbones dates back 2,400 years to the ancient Italian civilization of the Etruscans. They considered hens to be akin to oracles. When one was killed, the hen’s collarbone was removed and allowed to dry in the sun.
It was gently stroked – not snapped – while having a wish made over it.
We know from ancient Roman records that a century or two later, Romans, who adopted many Etruscan customs, went from stroking a wishbone for luck to making a game of snapping it, as we do now.
When the Romans came to occupy England, the wishbone custom came with them. And when turkey became the star of the Thanksgiving feast, so did the game of snapping the wishbone for good fortune.
In some families, the wishbone is broken on Thanksgiving Day and, in others, it’s saved to be broken on Christmas. Ideally, it should be removed from the carcass and be allowed to dry out.
Unless it’s dry, it can’t give the satisfying “snap” and decide the winner of the wishbone game. Sometimes, when the kids are clamoring to break the wishbone before bedtime, it’s necessary to put the wishbone in the oven to accelerate the drying time.
If your family subscribes to the “longer end is the winner” theory, and you want a better chance of winning the break, you may want to consider the advice of ornithologists: choose the thicker side of the wishbone and for better leverage, grasp the bone as high up on it as you can. Another tip: let your opponent do most of the pulling.
Here’s wishing you and yours a Happy Turkey Day and may all your wishbone wishes come true.