KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Up until the last 15 years, I could always count on enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey. But since my immediate family doesn’t care much for the meat from this noble bird, we now have the non-traditional Betsy’s Chicken each Thanksgiving in place of it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s equally as good – but I miss my turkey.

It appears most US consumers are keeping the Thanksgiving turkey-eating tradition alive. Based on recent numbers from the National Turkey Federation (NTF), more than 248.5 million turkeys were raised and more than 219 million were consumed in the US in 2011. NTF estimates 46 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter. Nearly 88 percent of Americans surveyed by the NTF said they eat turkey at Thanksgiving. The average weight of turkeys purchased for Thanksgiving is 16 lbs., meaning that approximately 736 million lbs. of turkey were consumed in the United States during Thanksgiving in 2011.

It’s hard to talk about this holiday without remembering past family Thanksgiving celebrations while I was a kid. I still have recollections of Thanksgiving while I was around six or seven years old and living in the Chesterfield area on the south side of Chicago. My paternal grandparents owned an old, brown-brick two-flat we lived in plus they lived below us. My grandmother was a wonderful cook, who worked part-time in the kitchen at nearby Perry Grade School. My grandparents always hosted Thanksgiving dinner. She would make a huge (at least it seemed huge at that age) turkey, dressing, whole cranberries, corn bread, candied yams, mashed potatoes and the grown-ups went wild for her vegetable gelatin salad (yuck!). For dessert, there was always made-from-scratch pumpkin and custard pies, cookies and fruit cake. She did some of here baking from a small, antique oven she had in the basement.

Each Thanksgiving, the entire apartment building smelled like roasted turkey for weeks – and nobody complained. We would enjoy hot and cold turkey dinner sandwiches for days and the final remnants of the quickly drying out turkey was eventually ground into turkey salad, which would give us several more days to enjoy turkey. Our neighborhood was just several miles west of Lake Michigan so it wasn’t uncommon back in those days to have snow on the ground before Thanksgiving – and it would stay on the ground until March, thanks to continually cold weather and routine bouts of lake-effect snow we’d enjoy week after week. My older sister and I would play for hours in the snow on Thanksgiving Day before dinner. Despite wearing snowsuits and boots, we’d always be sopping wet from building snow forts and making snow angels. We’d then have to take a quick bath and my frozen body would sting from the steaming, hot water. My last Thanksgiving while living in Chicago, however, was a non-turkey event because I had a bad case of Chicken Pox and was too sick to eat anything.

My grandparents eventually moved a small, white-frame house in the little central Illinois town of Paxton. The house was next to a one-track railroad and across the street from the old two-story Ford County jail and courthouse where my dad’s Uncle Fred and Aunt Mildred lived; he was county sheriff for decades. At that time (the late 1950’s), Interstate 57, which now passes directly west of Paxton, wasn’t built yet so we would have to drive the old country roads before daybreak to arrive in Paxton by noon. And back in those days, you could count on cold weather and snow to make the trip somewhat hazardous. I could always tell when we were half-way there because we would eventually be engulfed by the wonderful aroma coming from the Kellogg’s corn flakes plant in Kankakee. It would still be pitch back at the time we hit Kankakee…but the distant plant lights and the aroma of Kellogg’s corn flakes would always be noted by our entire family.
Thanksgiving dinner in Paxton, despite the never-ending quibbling between my sister and me as to who would get the wish-bone and drum sticks, were magical. As mentioned in one past column, we even went hunting and bagged rabbit and pheasant one Thanksgiving morning, which we cleaned and my grandmother prepared for Thanksgiving dinner that day. She also served oyster dressing that day, and looking back – this was as close to the earliest of Thanksgiving feasts our family ever got.

As the story goes, the first Thanksgiving feast was enjoyed in November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims from England gathered with people from the Wampanoag Nation at Plymouth, Mass. To celebrate that autumn’s harvest – that day became known as America’s “first Thanksgiving.” When it comes to what food was served during this first Thanksgiving celebration, there remains a lot of speculation, according to www.history.com. William Bradford, the colony’s governor, commissioned four men to go on a fowling mission to gather birds for this three-day event. Wild turkey was plentiful in the area and a common food source for English settlers and Native Americans. But ducks, geese and swans were just as likely to have been appropriated during the hunt. Herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds to enhance their flavor.

Local vegetables likely served include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and peas. Cornmeal, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served. Fruits may have included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and cranberries, which Native Americans ate plus used as a natural dye. Seafood may have been plentiful during the first Thanksgiving feast as Mussels were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters might also have been part of the feast. Although no pumpkin pies were served, early English settlers in North America reportedly hollowed out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.

Now, getting back to more current times – my mom, dad, sister and I were white meat lovers and we were not alone. White turkey meat is generally preferred in the US while other countries choose the dark meat, NTF relays. I have since evolved into a dark meat-lover, although I also like white meat, too. White-meat lovers have it made because a turkey typically contains about 70 percent white meat versus 30 percent dark meat.

Turkey consumption in the US has nearly doubled over the past 25 years. NTF statistics relay that in 2011, per capita turkey consumption was 16.1 lbs. compared to 8.3 lbs. in 1975. One reason behind this increase is turkey is versatile and can be cooked on the stovetop, in the oven or microwave and on the grill. Value-added turkey products have greatly evolved and include ground turkey, turkey ham, turkey franks, turkey pastrami, turkey sausage, turkey bacon and deli turkey.

Since wild turkeys are indigenous to North America, available in different species and live in my area of Northern Illinois and our surrounding states, I often wonder what the they taste like as my wife and I see them grazing in fields while driving from here to there. From what I could find out, folks who have dined on wild turkey say they taste gamier and tougher than domestic turkey. For those sportsmen who can hunt wild turkey this time of year and would like to try bagging one for their own Thanksgiving dinner but are unfamiliar with them, be advised that wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour and can run 20 miles per hour. And it’s not uncommon for a wild turkey flock to walk by or fly in front of your car with seemingly little or any thought for their own safety.

Thanksgiving is no longer relegated to being celebrated at home. An increasing number of Americans will enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant this year. Thirty-three million Americans will rely on restaurants for all or parts of their Thanksgiving meals this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Fifteen-million Americans plan to visit a restaurant for a Thanksgiving meal this year, an additional 14 million plan to order parts of their Thanksgiving meal from a restaurant to be eaten at their home or someone else’s home and 4 million plan to order a full takeout Thanksgiving meal from a restaurant, an NRA consumer survey found.

Regardless of how or where you’re spending your Thanksgiving Day this year, here’s wishing you and yours a happy and safe Thanksgiving. May your hearts be filled with thanks for the blessings you have and may you help to create warm Thanksgiving 2013 memories that your children, grandchildren and loved ones will remember and cherish for their entire lives.