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A woman dished cranberry sauce around a turkey in the 1950s
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Today, we think of turkey as central to the Thanksgiving meal. Some estimates show that 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving and the native bird has come to symbolize long-held American culinary tradition. Yet Norman Rockwell’s vision of a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey at its center is more myth than fact. Americans have long clashed and battled about the turkey dinner as vegetarians and carnivores fought to instate their own menus. Yet these Thanksgiving fights show us all that making peace and giving thanks is well worth fighting for.

Wishing each other a “happy turkey day” forgets that the Thanksgiving turkey has been contested from the start. In the 19th century, religious reformers railed against the gluttonous binge of the meal. In the 20th century, vegetarians crusaded both against the importance of meat to the holiday (be it turkey, goose or ham) and the piggishness of the diners.

As early as 1894, Ella Kellogg, wife of John Harvey Kellogg of cornflakes fame, published a Thanksgiving menu featuring “mock turkey” made entirely from vegetarian ingredients. By the 1910s, newspapers featured meatless alternatives to Thanksgiving foods such as “vegetable turkey” or “mock goose” made from ingredients such as lima beam pulp, Brazil nuts, breadcrumbs and rice and molded into the shape of the fowl. Another favorite was a 1919 nut and breadcrumb “turkeyless turkey” steamed and doused with brown gravy. An elite Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a vegetarian society at New York City’s finest hotel used the motto: “No turkey need feel the slightest alarm, our members will feast on the heart of palm.” Apparently, heart of palm tasted just like chicken (or turkey, rather).

Even the vegetarians fought with one another. Ethical vegetarians slammed other vegetarians for eating foods that merely resembled “scorched carcasses,” even if these foods were made from grains and nuts. They preferred nut loaf or pea soup to “take the place of the murderous dinner served on Thanksgiving day,” as The Vegetarian Magazine put it in 1921. More accommodating vegetarians took a practical view, cooking and commercializing meat substitutes like Protose or Millennium Meat, both high-protein meat analogues largely composed of nuts and grains.

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The meat eaters derided them all. Carnivores dismissed these plant-based substitutes as ersatz and fake. Others accused the vegetarians of being hypocrites and holier-than-thou. Hostesses complained about accommodating picky vegetarian guests. A 1911 poem recounted how vegetarians sidestepped their flimsy morals by inhaling the meaty aromas of oysters and turkey. Turkey or no turkey, these clashes caused many ugly fights on a supposedly peaceful day.

Later on, critics also knocked the “countercuisine” of the alternative food movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Especially for men, vegetarianism was stereotyped as a wimpy diet for a long-haired draft dodger rebelling against red meat America. Vegetarian stereotypes are still strong in popular culture today, painting an image of effeminate “soy boy” weaklings.

Still, homemade meatless turkey recipes circulated widely in vegetarian cookbooks. Companies also developed commercial alternatives to the Thanksgiving turkey. Tofurky was introduced to the table in 1995. Maybe the next ten years will welcome an Impossible Turkey, à la Impossible Burger. Or we may see the rise of cultured turkey made from real animal cells but grown in a lab. Both technologies promise even more strife between the health foods crowd and Silicon Valley techno-utopians.

Whether we choose to eat mock turkey, animal turkey or no turkey at all, Thanksgiving is a day to remember that even the rosiest sheen of tradition can’t hide how hard it is to find common ground. Abraham Lincoln recognized the value of Thanksgiving during the Civil War precisely to unite a country divided by the horrors of slavery and brutality of war. We never lived in a Norman Rockwell America where we all agreed on politics, let alone Thanksgiving dinner. Even the turkey has long been contentious. Yet the act of thanksgiving itself should remind us that – turkey or no turkey – we can work towards unity and peace, even if unity is hard, and peace is always hard fought.

Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present

Adrienne Bitar teaches history at Cornell University and is the author of Diet and the Disease of Civilization.

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