Can Thanksgiving still be Thanksgiving without an enormous turkey?

Museum-goers look at Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want, aka The Thanksgiving Picture
Museum-goers look at Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want, aka The Thanksgiving Picture
Photo: John Gress (Getty Images)

If you’re in the turkey business, late fall is like tax season. There must be other times of the year when people eat lots of turkey—surely all the turkey legs at Renaissance Faires drive up the market?—but Thanksgiving is the Big One. But in this, our year of plague, even the most beloved American tradition of a giant bird on the table is threatened.

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If social distancing orders are still in effect—oh, let’s not kid ourselves, they will be—people will no longer be gathering for enormous dinners with all their family and friends. At best, they’ll be huddling around the table with the other members of their COVID pods, in small groups of three or four. Or they’ll be eating solo in front of a Zooming laptop. In these cases, who needs a 15-pound turkey?

And so the nation’s turkey producers, like every other food provider, will have to pivot. (Are we tired of that word yet?) Instead of selling whole turkeys, they’ll be experimenting with selling them in pieces or by the pound. Things were already bad due to the lack of orders from college dining halls, state fairs, and Ren Faires, and as one turkey farmer told the Washington Post, “We didn’t have the foresight that there might be changed consumer preferences.” Fresh turkey producers are in even more of a bind because they operate on a yearly cycle; they can’t just kill a turkey and freeze it whenever, and their business is dependent on selling an entire bird.

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Meanwhile, all these turkeys still have to be slaughtered, which is a whole other issue, given the way COVID has spread at meat processing plants and caused shutdowns.

Things aren’t bad everywhere in Turkey World. The producers of plant-based Tofurkey are expecting an uptick in sales. The Butterball Turkey Talk Line anticipates an increase in calls this year from people who have either never cooked a turkey before (since they were dependent upon other relatives or went out to restaurants) or are trying a new preparation.

But they will still be eating turkey in some form or another. As Ariane Daguin, founder of D’Artagnan, explains, “Some people have gone down to a duck or goose, but still, when you’re talking about Thanksgiving this year, a huge majority of Americans will stick with turkey. Everything is falling apart, so we cling to tradition.”

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

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burner'down

I wonder how many people who aren’t doing the usual big family feast will be interested in ordering the meal catered instead? That way you still get the bird and all the good stuff, without drowning in leftovers for a week afterwards. Restaurants that don’t usually do Thanksgiving might be able to make some money this way.

This is the first year I’ll be on my own for Thanksgiving. Even in years when I was living away from my family and couldn’t get home, I always had some kind of day-of Friendsgiving to go to. I don’t actually like turkey that much, but I might do a boneless breast cutlet (think large chicken breast) and some of the fixings. I have a cranberry chicken rice pilaf recipe I could repurpose.