Most U.S. presidential historians tend to focus most of their attention on topics such as foreign policy or economic policy. Ira Brill, however, has a much more specialized area of expertise.
Brill, the communications director of Foster Farms, is also the “unofficial, self-appointed presidential turkey historian.”
So it only seems fitting that Brill will get the opportunity to travel to Washington this month to see the National Thanksgiving Turkey presented to President Barack Obama and his family. The turkey, and its alternate, will be birds raised by Foster Farms.
Every year since the Harry Truman administration, the chairman of the National Turkey Federation (NTF) has been given the honor of presenting the National Thanksgiving Turkey. This year’s chairman is Jihad Douglas of Aviagen Turkeys. Foster Farms raises the Nicholas White turkey breed developed by Aviagen.
The names of the two turkeys headed to the nation’s capital have not yet been chosen. According to the NTF, in recent years, the two turkeys receive names chosen from suggestions made by the public. Interestingly, the names often go together. Recent presidential turkey duos, according to the NTF, include Mac and Cheese, Popcorn and Carmel, Cobbler and Gobbler, Peace and Liberty, Apple and Cider, May and Flower, Biscuits and Gravy, and Stars and Stripes. Those turkeys were all “pardoned” by the president, but Brill will tell you it wasn’t always that way.
10 presidential turkey tidbits
While the first official National Thanksgiving Turkey ceremony was held in the 1940s during the Truman administration, Brill’s knowledge of presidents and Thanksgiving turkeys dates back much further. Here are 10 interesting details he learned through his research:
- This will be the second time Foster Farms raised the National Thanksgiving Turkey. The other time was in 2010, also during the Obama administration. Those presidential turkeys were the ones named Apple and Cider.
- Abraham Lincoln was the first president to officially proclaim Thanksgiving as a national holiday. While the origins of the holidays date back to 1621, it was not celebrated on the same date by all states until 1863. “With the Civil War, Lincoln was looking for anything to improve morale in the country,” Brill said.
- President William Howard Taft would buy a turkey for every member of the White House staff for Thanksgiving. He believed that every person, no matter how prestigious their jobs were, should have the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving is a holiday that is about sharing, and I think Taft very much embraced that,” Brill said.
- Truman was the first president to make a ceremony out of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation. But he didn’t pardon the turkey. In fact, he once announced that the turkeys would come in handy, and he and his family would go on to eat them during their Christmas dinner at Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri.
- While the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation ceremony has been held each year since Truman’s presidency, there was an occasion when President Jimmy Carter sent First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale to accept the turkey on his behalf.
- President Ronald Reagan did not pardon any of his turkeys, but he was the first president to use the word “pardon.” When asked if there would be any pardons in the Iran Contra scandal, Reagan replied that he would pardon the turkey instead.
- President George H.W. Bush, who was Reagan’s vice president, ran with Reagan’s idea of pardoning the turkey, and became the first president to make a turkey pardon official.
- The turkey presented to President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was a rather large, 55-pound turkey. But Kennedy said he felt they should let the turkey grow a little longer. He never got the chance to enjoy that turkey on his plate as he was assassinated less than one week later.
- Reagan, known to many as the cowboy president, may have been at ease around horses and other livestock, appeared spooked by the turkeys in past videos of presidential turkey presentations. On the other hand, Obama, who has very limited experience around farm animals, appeared quite comfortable around the birds.
- While turkeys are naturally social animals, the turkeys that will go to Washington need to be more accustomed to being around people, Brill said. Foster Farms uses music as one way to get them ready for their big trip. In 2010, they listened to rock music, with the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” reportedly being their favorite song. This year’s birds are more into country music, but not the modern-day Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. “They’re big fans of Buck Owens and George Strait,” said Brill. “These guys, they know the difference.”
How does one become a presidential turkey historian?
Brill has always had an interest in history and U.S. presidents. And he has noticed that food has always been an integral part of each presidency. Some have used it to keep peace while negotiating, while others have used it in trying to establish a desired identity.
Through his own studies in history, and his connection with the turkey industry, an interest in a very specialized area of U.S. history evolved.
However, Brill, tongue-in-cheek, said he is the only person to be the “unofficial, self-appointed presidential historian.”
“I know that to be a fact because I was present when I twice swore myself in,” he said.
But to Brill, the acceptance of the National Thanksgiving Turkey is just proof that presidents, regardless of their political party affiliations, are people, too.
“This is the most powerful person in the world, and it is interesting that he takes time out of his day to pardon a turkey,” said Brill. “People always ask, ‘Why do they do this?’ First, I think for most presidents, pardoning the turkey is a time when they can relax a little bit. Pardoning a turkey is a lot easier than dealing with foreign policy or economic policy, but I think the other thing about Thanksgiving is that it is one of the few non-partisan things that is left, and whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, everybody sits down and celebrates Thanksgiving. It’s really an opportunity for the president to connect with the entire nation, and those types of situations are few and far between.”