There have been several times since I relocated from London, England, to beautiful Coastal Georgia when I have thought that -- to use a common expression in British English -- Americans are “winding up the foreigner.”
In translation, this means “good naturedly teasing somebody from a different country and culture with false information in order to pull their chain.” So when I first heard about the tradition of the president of the United States pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving, I believed that was firmly in this category. I had to do some research before I would believe it.
However, it is true. According to www.history.com, pardoning the turkey is a comparatively recent tradition was set during President George H.W. Bush’s first Thanksgiving in office in 1989. However, the roots of this weird tradition go back much further, back to Harry Truman’s time in office in the 1940s in order to create a photo opportunity, and even further all the way back to Lincoln. This seems strange to my British-educated mind since, as I have always known, Americans really do love their meat.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the USA has the highest meat consumption per person, averaging a whopping 265 pounds per year. The world average is 92 pounds. Even my beef, lamb and chicken loving British countrymen average 208 pounds per year.
On Thanksgiving, Americans gobble up (pun intended) around 46 million turkeys, weighing on average 16 pounds each, according to statistics from the National Turkey Federation. Yes, turkeys have their own federation.
Turning back to the pardoning tradition, the freed turkeys spend their remaining months at the ironically named Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. Between 2005 and 2009, they were also sent to Disneyland and Walt Disney World to appear in Thanksgiving parades and celebrations. From 2010 to 2013, the turkeys instead made the short trip from the White House to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and last year they were transferred to Turkey Hill Farm at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. Just in case the primary turkey doesn’t make it through all these festivities, a back-up turkey travels with it. Sadly, the lucky pardoned turkeys never live very much longer after their pardon. This is because the skeletons and organs of turkeys bred for eating are incapable of supporting for very long the extreme weights that they have been fattened up to for Thanksgiving feasts.
Before H.W. Bush formalized the pardoning tradition, there are reports of other presidents offering reprieves. It all seems to have started when President Abraham Lincoln's son, Tad, apparently pleaded with his father to let the turkey destined for the family's Christmas dinner (which he had named Jack and treated as a pet, even putting it on a leash) to live. In 1963, John F. Kennedy reportedly spared the life of a mammoth 55-pound white turkey wearing a sign around its neck which read “Good Eating, Mr. President!”
In 1987 the witty President Ronald Reagan sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether he planned to pardon any of his aides accused of wrongdoing in the Iran-Contra scandal by joking that he would instead pardon the turkey with which he had just been presented.
Thanksgiving is my own favorite holiday. It revolves around family, friends and food, and I always try to make the most of it.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is from the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten, American author and TV personality from The Food Network: “I absolutely adore Thanksgiving. It's the only holiday I insist on making myself!”
Whatever is on your menu -- which is probably turkey -- I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.
God bless America!