Why Roast a Turkey?


According to this collection of turkey statistics, “more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving.”

In a country of some 300 million people, that’s one whole turkey for every 6.67 people. According to this report, the average Thanksgiving gathering has about 11 people. So that’s nearly two whole turkeys on every single table in America.

O.K., let’s assume those numbers are way, way off. Still, there are plainly an awful lot of turkeys sold at Thanksgiving. But are they consumed?

I just roasted two whole turkeys for my Thanksgiving crowd — we had 24 people and not a single punishable offense, a new record for my family — and when it came time to wrangle the leftovers, the turkey was easily the biggest problem.

We could have easily done with one turkey instead of two. And an unscientific poll of our 24 guests revealed that roughly one-third of them actively liked turkey, while roughly another third tolerated it, and the last third weren’t very interested.

This leads me to wonder: why do so many of us have turkey for Thanksgiving?

People rarely roast turkeys during the year. I am guessing that roast turkey is pretty far down anyone’s list of the most delicious foods. So why do so many of us go against our true preferences on this one day? Here are a few ideas:

1) We love tradition more than we love turkey.

2) We love to do what everyone else does, and if everyone else is roasting a turkey, we’ll roast a turkey too, damn it.

3) A roast turkey is a very cheap way to feed a lot of people.

4) Roasting a turkey gives the host a way to keep busy and avoid the once-a-year relatives who have invaded his/her home.

5) Turkey is a great delivery system for gravy, which is what we really like, and it’s hard to justify putting gravy on other foods that are naturally more flavorful.

Your thoughts?

Also, according to this report, “essentially 100 percent of the nearly 300 million turkeys produced annually in the United States for consumption are the results of artificial insemination.”

Kind of gives a whole new meaning to “turkey baster.”

Eric M. Jones

5) It a delivery system for stuffing, without which there would be no turkey dinner.

But the whole affair is just tradition, and a pretty good one at that. You might as well ask why we have hotdogs at baseball games, or popcorn at movies.

Tradition is a good way not to have to invent everything new all the time.


I'd say it's mostly (1) and (2). We're strongly (and strangely) reliant on momentum in what we do. Roasting turkey really inefficient, too. It's very hard to manage the different cooking times of dark and light meat. Frying is better. Breaking down and then roasting works too.


I think we hold off on eating turkey for a certain period preceding Thanksgiving in anticipation of a turkey feast on the day itself.


I love the combination of turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing all in one bite, and I like saving that treat for holiday times to make it more special. If we had Thanksgiving fare regularly throughout the year, TG would be, as far as food goes, an ordinary day, not a holiday (a holy or "set apart" day).

Jason Walters

At HEB, the grocery store chain here in Texas, they are giving away free turkeys(or at least ten pounds of it is free), when you buy a ham. Are they doing that because nobody wants to buy turkeys so they are packaging it in a way that sells more turkeys? It worked great if that is what they wanted. We had to throw out the free turkey from last year to make room for the new free turkey.


For me, it's a combination of #3 and #5. Turkey is economical for a big table full of diners, and the gravy ... mmm ... !

I'm not that attached to tradition or "following the crowd" (#1 and #2) -- I've cooked ham a time or two on Thanksgiving, and once, roasted a goose.

As for having things to do to doge guests (#4), my method of roasting a turkey is not very labor-intensive even if it takes a while -- it may be a little more work than ham, but not as much as other things I could cook. But more than that, I generally don't have Thanksgiving with people I'd like to avoid.

One thing I disagree on, and that is how good turkey is. When it's done right, it can be very delicious ... even without all that gravy.

Dan Lufkin

Thanksgiving dinner is more symbolic than gastronomic. There's always one side-dish that the family never alters, even though no one really likes it -- baked mashed sweet potato with marshmallow, for example. Note that all the food is served out in portions from a mass: turkey carved, succotash spooned out, gravy poured; serving corn on the cob would somehow be inappropriate. It also features very inexpensive (all right, cheap) food. Every year there's a news side-bar where the county extension agent estimates that Thanksgiving dinner costs only $3.75 per person. Where I live, Thanksgiving dinner in a good country restaurant is a bargain in quantity and quality.

Dan, Frederick MD

Garrett Pendergast

No turkey dinner-no turkey sandwiches the next day!

That would be a shame


I think 3 is very powerful. There are many food items, such as lobster, eel
that were traditional to the original Thanksgiving, but I suspect few people make foods from these original items any more.


I think you've hit it with #5: but even more than just a delivery mechanism for the gravy, the turkey helps set the scene for the whole meal. The smells of the bird and accompanying herbs roasting in the oven for half the day, the ritual of carving and the oohing and ahhhing (it often looks better than it tastes), these all set the stage for what is more of a social event than a meal.

BTW, on Thanksgiving evening, Discovery Channel ran an episode of "Dirty Jobs" featuring a segment in a turkey farm, inseminating the hens. Its not pretty, and I personally was thankful I had eaten beforehand.


6) Leftover turkey soup.


In an effort to find evidence for/against the theory that we hold off on eating turkey for a period preceding Thanksgiving, I failed. However, I did come across another conundrum:

Look at the Google Trends for "turkey" or "turkey recipes". You'll see the expected enormous spike around Thanksgiving and a smaller spike around Christmas. You will also notice a small bump at the beginning of October. This small bump is consistently there every year that Google provides data for. You can see it clearer if you just look at October data for each year.
Interestingly, the bump does not exist if you narrow the region to just the United States. Since this trend persists for "turkey recipe" as well as "turkey", I would guess that it does not reflect an annual event involving Turkey (the nation).

What gives?



I'd have to say that #4 totally misses. A turkey really takes very little preparation time or attention relative to other kinds of dishes. I mean you have to do most of the prep and have the turkey in the oven before the guests arrive since it takes so long to roast. So perhaps the inverse would be true. Also you need the turkey to make the gravy!


I made a quick calculation about this.
If we assume that each one of these turkeys are baked in an electric oven for 2 hours at a 1000 W average power.

That mean 90 Tera Wh of electricity needed.

From my French point of view, this is 1/5 of France's electrical consumption in a year !


Your data is flawed -- you haven't factored in the number of people who serve ham.

posted with gravy stained fingers.

Perhaps the reason turkey sales are so poor the rest of the year is that everyone expects the whole rigamorole that accompanies the Thanksgiving bird or the cooks expect that everyone expects the whole rigamorole that accompanies the Thanksgiving bird.


Turkey sandwiches with cranberry jelly. Gravy. Dressing. Nuff said.


Point one is irrelevant: the point is we love tradition more than we HATE turkey! :)


I thought we ate turkeys because Ronald Reagan ate turkey with the Native Americans, after he crossed the Atlantic, before creating America and giving them land for casinos.


Not to mention whatever percentage of Americans are vegetarian (myself included), reducing the overall number of turkey eaters. We had thirteen people for dinner on Thanksgiving, 12 of them eating two turkeys. There were ridiculous leftovers, but almost everything was either eaten, used, or frozen when I left yesterday.