Sunday, November 21, 2021

A Brief History of the White House Turkey Pardon


As it often is with political history, there are competing claims as to when the presidential tradition of "pardoning" a Thanksgiving Day holiday turkey began. Some say it dates back to the 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln's young son Tad begged his dad to spare the life of a wild turkey named "Jack" that had been sent to the Lincolns to be part of their holiday dinner.

Others claim that the tradition began during Harry Truman's administration. Although it's true that the National Turkey Federation has been providing holiday turkeys to the White House since 1947, when Truman was in office, there's no evidence to prove that this story is true.

While President John F. Kennedy spared a turkey's life on November 19, 1963, just days before his assassination, he didn't use the word "pardon." Instead, the bird had a sign hanging around its neck that read, "GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!", which prompted Kennedy to quip, "Let's just keep him going."

The first president to actually use the word "pardon" in reference to a holiday turkey was reportedly Ronald Reagan, who deflected questions in 1987 about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair by joking that he would also pardon a turkey named "Charlie," who was already heading to a local petting zoo.


Which brings us to President George H.W. Bush, who was apparently the first president to intentionally "pardon" a turkey. At the National Turkey Presentation Ceremony in 1989, Bush light-heartedly remarked: "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."

Although it's difficult to confirm exactly when this White House tradition began, we do know where some of the more recently pardoned turkeys have been sent after receiving their presidential reprieves. From 1989 until 2004, the fortunate fowls were sent to live out their natural lives at Frying Pan Farm in Virginia.

The venue changed in 2005, however, when Disneyland was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. That year, a lucky turkey named "Marshmallow," and his alternate, "Yam," were taken by police escort to the airport and then flown first class to California. According to the Associated Press:

Marshmallow became the Grand Marshal of Disneyland's Thanksgiving parade, and the sign above his float read "The Happiest Turkey on Earth." The turkeys then retired to a coop at the park's Big Thunder Ranch, where three of the pardoned birds...still live. Florida's Disney World got the birds from 2007, when they arrived on a United Airlines flight that was renamed "Turkey One."

In 2010, the venue changed yet again. Instead of being sent to Disneyland, the 21-week-old turkey that President Obama pardoned was sent to live out the rest of his life at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. Upon its arrival at Mount Vernon, it was reportedly "be driven to his pen in a horse-drawn carriage and be greeted with a trumpet fanfare."


A spokeswoman for Mount Vernon said that it was appropriate that the turkey go to Washington's home since he was the first president to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation, and he raised wild turkeys at Mount Vernon.

Although she didn't say how the Washington's preferred to serve their Thanksgiving birds, the Mount Vernon Inn offers a daily lunch menu that includes a "Colonial Turkey Pye" which is described as "a turkey stew served with mixed vegetables and topped with a homemade buttermilk biscuit."

While it might be difficult to obtain a copy of that particular recipe, you can try this quick and simple recipe for Turkey Pot Pie if you need something to do with your leftover turkey this Thanksgiving or this one from Pillsbury.com:


1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
2 (11-ounce) cans condensed Cheddar cheese soup
2 (10 3/4-ounce) cans cream of celery soup
1 large turkey skinned, cooked, boned and cubed
2 medium onions, diced
2 cup cooked butternut squash, diced
2 cup cranberries
Salt and pepper

Preheat to 350 degrees F. To make the crust, dust surface with flour. Cut 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry into 1-inch strips, 8 inches long.
On a large cookie sheet, weave strips into a lattice large enough to cover each pot pie. Mix egg and milk together and brush onto each lattice square. Bake for 5 minutes.

Dough will rise and turn light golden brown. Set aside. In a large saucepan heat the soups. Stir in turkey, onion, squash, cranberries, salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil. In an oven-proof dish, fill with mixture and top with the pre-cooked lattice square. Bake for 5 minutes until bubbly and puff pastry is deep golden brown.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the Thanksgiving Day Date-Change Fiasco

So did you know that in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving Day forward by a week? Rather than allow the holiday to fall on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring that the holiday would instead be celebrated a week earlier.

Why did he make such a seemingly random decision in the midst of the Great Depression? Well, his reason was economic and intended to extend the Christmas shopping season. According to the Wall Street Journal:

There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving would fall on the 30th. That left just 20 shopping days till Christmas. By moving the holiday up a week to Nov. 23, the president hoped to give the economy a lift by allowing shoppers more time to make their purchases and—so his theory went—spend more money...

In an informal news conference in August announcing his decision, FDR offered a little tutorial on the history of the holiday. Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, he noted, meaning that it was not set by federal law. According to custom, it was up to the president to pick the date every year.

It was not until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln ordered Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, that that date became generally accepted, Roosevelt explained. To make sure that reporters got his point, he added that there was nothing sacred about the date...


Just as he had done with his controversial "Court Packing" plan of 1937, Roosevelt badly misjudged public opinion. Outraged protests began in Plymouth, Massachussetts, the place of the "first Thanksgiving" in 1621, but quickly spread to other circles.

PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES: Many Games are Upset by Thanksgiving Plan, read a banner headline in the New York Times. And even in the staunchly Democratic state of Arkansas, the football coach of Little Ouachita College threatened: 'We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'"


Of course, some collegiate coaches and athletic directors were more diplomatic. In a letter to the president's secretary, Philip Badger, Chairman of the University Board of Athletic Control at New York University wrote:

My dear Mr. Secretary:

I am wondering if you are at liberty at this time to supply me with any information over and above what has appeared in the public press to date regarding the plan of the President to proclaim November 23 as Thanksgiving Day this year instead of Nov. 30.

Over a period of years it has been customary for my institution to play its annual football game with Fordham University at the Yankee Stadium here at New York University on Thanksgiving Day...As you probably know, it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day, with the belief that such day would fall upon the fourth Thursday in November.

Please understand that all of us interested in the administration of intercollegiate athletics realize that there are considerations and problems before the country for solution which are far more important than the schedule problems of intercollegiate athletics. However, some of us are confronted with the problem of readjusting the date of any football contest affected by the President's proposal.


Outside of the collegiate football arena, public sentiments also ran heavily against Roosevelt's plan, as evidenced by a national Gallup poll which found "that 62% of Americans surveyed disapproved of the date change." And, as opposition grew, some state governors "took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation."

According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum:

Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because families that lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! [And so] family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.

By 1941, most retailers also disapproved of Roosevelt's plan, and even the federal government conceded that the date change had not resulted in any boost in sales. And so, on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Joint Resolution 41 making Thanksgiving a national holiday and mandating that it be observed on the fourth Thursday in November of each year.

FAST FACT: According to the Library of Congress, when "Abraham Lincoln was president in 1863, he proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be our national Thanksgiving Day. In 1865, Thanksgiving was celebrated the first Thursday of November, because of a proclamation by President Andrew Johnson, and, in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant chose the third Thursday for Thanksgiving Day. In all other years, until 1939, Thanksgiving was celebrated as Lincoln had designated, the last Thursday in November."