The Thanksgiving turkey is America’s most iconic edible fowl, with a prominent role in countless cookbooks, novels, and printed ephemera. It even stars in the exhibition Art and Appetite: American Art, Culture, and Cuisine, now in the Art Institute’s Regenstein galleries. While Thanksgiving celebrates the unifying meal shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans, it wasn’t until 1864 that President Lincoln made it a national holiday. This dramatic Harper’s Weekly double-spread by Thomas Nast appeared the previous year, in the midst of the Civil War. As a result, the Pilgrims’ harvest festival became a plea for unity between the North and South.
Before the turkey became the mainstay of the Thanksgiving feast, like ducks and geese it was a staple of British holiday meals. George Cruikshank’s lottery ticket showing “The Grand Turk” from 1820 playfully confuses the fowl and the country, even giving the stately bird a turban. Cruikshank was not alone in making this glib connection, as an old chestnut of American culinary puns emphasizes the bird’s global significance: “What international catastrophe occurs when a waiter drops a platter on Thanksgiving? The downfall of Turkey, the overthrow of Greece, and the destruction of China.”
Although the bald eagle became the United States’ national bird, Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey. John James Audubon agreed, and would eventually restore the wild turkey’s dignity by capturing it in two of his massive color plates in his important testament to local avian wildlife, The Birds of America (1826–1838). A smaller and more affordable edition appears here, but Audubon’s fascination remains the same: For its “great size and beauty, its value as a delicate and highly prized article of food . . . render it one of the most interesting of the birds indigenous to the United States of America.”
1. Thomas Nast and Harper and Brothers, Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization, Vol. VII, December 5, 1863. (Dorothy Braude Edinburg Art LLC).
2. George Cruikshank, "The Grand Turk," from Twenty-six lottery tickets, c. 1820. (Prints and Drawings, RX16354/0117).
3. John James Audubon, The birds of America: from drawings made in the United States and their territories. Vol. 5: New York, V.G. Audubon and C.S. Francis & Co., 1855. (Ryerson and Burnham Libraries)