Today President Obama once again pardons a Thanksgiving turkey, sending it from a potential fate as dinner on the White House table to a (short) life of luxury on a farm. The presidential turkey pardoning tradition is often credited to President Truman, but evidence suggests that the Truman turkey went into the president’s belly, not off to a happy new home.
According to National Public Radio, President Abraham Lincoln spared a Thanksgiving turkey, but it wasn’t an official act. It’s simply because his son Tad had started to see the turkey as a pet. Poultry-related trade groups like the National Turkey Federation and they Poultry and Egg National Board have given a fresh bird presidents for many decades, but President Ronald Reagan was the first one to use the word “pardon” in conjunction with the bird. He didn’t officially pardon the turkey, which had already been spared and sent to a farm, Instead, he mentioned it as a quip in a conversation about Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair.
Prior to Reagan, President John F. Kennedy is known to have spared his turkey, although without officially pardoning it, and Richard Nixon is said to have sent his official turkey to a petting zoo as well.
The Presidential Pardon as we know it today originated with the first President Bush. It’s now a pre-Thanksgiving tradition, although President Obama seemed a little confused by it last year, proclaiming “”It is a little puzzling that I do this every year, but I will say that I enjoy it, because with all the tough stuff that swirls around in this office, it’s nice once in a while to just say ‘Happy Thanksgiving.'”
Typically, there are two turkeys; like England, we believe in an heir and a spare. This year’s duo, originally named Tom One and Tom Two, got the official monikers Honest and Abe. That’s fitting when you realize that Lincoln was the first known president to spare his turkey, although his was the only bird that actually became a presidential pet.
Sadly, even though the birds really do go to a farm (not the kind of “farm” where your ailing childhood dog was sent to live out its last days), they rarely make it beyond a year. Modern turkeys are bred to be eaten, not to be pets, so their weight makes it impossible for them to live out normal, lengthy lives. If you feel a little guilty tucking in your own Thanksgiving turkey this year, remember that he was always destined for your dinner table.
On the flipside, if you want to do your own turkey pardon, the Tofurky company makes a variety of meatless alternatives and even offers a complete Tofurky Feast kit with a Tofurky and all the trimmings, including brownies for dessert.