The pardoning of the presidential turkey is a Thanksgiving tradition as familiar and beloved as ogling giant parade floats and eating way too much pie. But how much do we really know about it?
Some say the POTUS turkey pardon traces its origins back to Abraham Lincoln, who, legend has it, once pardoned a turkey destined for his family’s Thanksgiving table after his son Tad made an impassioned argument that the bird should be allowed to live. Maybe.
What’s more certain is that handpicked Thanksgiving birds have been presented to presidents since 1893, that the National Turkey Federation took over the honors in 1947, and that, in most cases, the turkeys ended up on the presidents’ holiday tables, served up with all the trimmings. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy unofficially pardoned the turkey presented to him — “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said — and sent it back to the farm from which it came. Subsequent presidential turkeys were then sent on to a local petting farm, and in 1989 President George H.W. Bush made the presidential turkey pardon official.
Historically, the pardoning ceremony takes place shortly before Thanksgiving in the White House Rose Garden, although inclement weather has, on occasion, prompted a change of venue, as in 2009, when President Obama had to move it to the North Portico. Perhaps the location change made the president peckish, because he remarked that he had been tempted to eat the “good-lookin’ bird,” named Courage, but, “thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha,” the turkey’s life would be spared.
This year, the presidential turkey will be chosen from a flock of 50 toms currently being raised expressly for this purpose by Foster Farms, a family farm in California’s Central Valley, which also provided the presidential turkey in 2010.