With the Thanksgiving holiday fast approaching, we’ve compiled a selection of turkey-related facts. From the largest turkey in history, to the first-ever presidential pardon of a turkey, to modern, vegetarian alternatives, here’s a story about all things turkey ahead of America’s annual turkey day.
Let’s start with Tyson. Tyson, from Peterborough in the United Kingdom, wasn’t any old bird. He was the heaviest turkey ever recorded, setting a Guinness World Record back on December 12, 1989, that has not been bettered to this day.
Tyson belonged to Philip Cook of Leacroft Turkeys Limited, and was measured at a “greatest dressed weight” of 86 lbs (39 kg). He was weighed in the last iteration of an annual heaviest turkey competition in London, then auctioned to charity for a hefty sum of £4,400 (equivalent to $6,692 in 1989).
Of course, not all Thanksgiving tables will be adorned by turkeys.
Back in 2016, Great Big Story made a video on “Tofurky”. The clue is in the name, and the vegetarian alternative has become popular in recent years. The creation didn’t just appear out of thin air, however, but was years in the making. See how Seth Tibbot and his friend Hans mastered their Tofurky recipe below.
You’d expect the history behind the now yearly tradition of the US president pardoning a turkey in the White House garden to be well-documented and crystal clear. Alas, it’s rather more complicated than you might expect.
Back in 1865, a reporter called Noah Brooks recorded then-president Abraham Lincoln granting clemency to a turkey two years earlier. Whether this inspired the modern tradition is unlikely, but it was the first of its kind and inspired the tradition of Americans gifting turkeys to the White House. By the early 20th century, these turkeys often arrived with decoration and ceremony, including bunting on their crates or, in the case of one special bird from a Harding Girls Club in Chicago, “outfitted as a flying ace, complete with goggles.”
The next rumblings of the official start of the pardoning tradition date back to Harry S. Truman’s presidency and the late 1940s. They are linked to government policies known as “meatless Tuesdays” and “poultryless Thursdays” introduced between September and November 1947. These angered members of the American meat industry, who sent crates of live chickens to the White House in a protest known as “Hens for Harry”. The myth then goes that Truman pardoned the birds to support his policies, but this is disputed by none other than the office of Harry S. Truman Library & Museum itself, which said: “The Library’s staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency.”
Annual White House turkey gifts continued through the mid-20th century, ramping up during Reagan’s premiership in the 1980s, when “the turkey ceremony also became a source of satire and humor for reporters,” according to White House History.
Our story finally reaches its conclusion with Reagan’s vice president and eventual successor, George H. W. Bush. The year was 1989, and with animal rights activists protesting nearby, Bush Sr. said: “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy — he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”
Thirty-four years later, the least controversial form of presidential pardon is celebrated each year.
Sadly, not every turkey is spared, and some are eaten quicker than others… You may have encountered Joey Chestnut before. He is famed for his exploits at Coney Island’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, where he is a sixteen-time champion. His world record for hot dogs and buns is a stomach-churning 76 in 12 minutes, but he also holds the record for the most amount of turkeys in a ten-minute period. Chestnut devoured 9.35 pounds of meat off the bone back in November 2014. Sounds thoroughly unpleasant, but he pocketed $5,000 as a reward. Each to their own.
Another turkey-themed Guinness World Record is the fastest time to carve a turkey. That crown goes to Paul Kelly, from Essex in England, who carved a turkey in 3 minutes and 19.47 seconds on June 3, 2009. Kelly was competing against a local butcher called David Harrison.
If you’ve made it this far, you will be delighted to know that the fastest carver is not the only Guinness World Record owned by Kelly, nor even his most niche claim to fame. He also clocked the fastest time for plucking three turkeys.
And one final fact: did you know wild turkeys sleep in trees? They typically find the lower canopy of tall trees where they settle their heads into their feathers for a good night’s sleep.