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The History of Presidential Turkey Pardoning

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Each year before Thanksgiving, the President of the United States formally pardons a live turkey presented to him by the National Turkey Federation. It’s a tradition that’s seemingly been around forever, and while the NTF has been supplying the White House with holiday birds since the 1940s, the pardoning bit is actually a pretty new development.

A lot of people point to Harry Truman as pardoning the first turkey in 1947, but the record keepers at the Truman Library can’t find any “documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records” tying Truman to the custom. What’s more, the first turkey Truman supposedly pardoned wasn't even for Thanksgiving — it was given to him at Christmas. The Truman family ate it.

Another origin story says that Abraham Lincoln interrupted a Cabinet meeting in 1863 to grant a turkey named Jack, which his son had befriended, an order of reprieve for “execution” in the kitchen. As with Truman, though, there’s no documentation supporting the story, and it may be just another Lincoln tall tale.

The first president after Truman to spare a turkey was John F. Kennedy. But JFK did not grant a formal “pardon” to the bird presented to him the week before Thanksgiving in 1963. He simply suggested the family “just keep him” and announced he would not eat the bird. ("It's our Thanksgiving present to him," Kennedy said.) According to a contemporary New York Times report, the bird was returned to a farm for breeding. Kennedy tragically didn't live to see Thanksgiving — he was assassinated on November 22.

Ronald Reagan spared a turkey named Charlie from the White House kitchen, but only joked about giving it a pardon as he tried to deflect questions about the Iran-Contra affair. Formalized turkey pardoning, it turns out, has only been around since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush looked at his turkey and said, “Let me assure this fine tom he will not end up on anyone's dinner table. Not this guy. He's been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”

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Since 1989, the tradition has been cemented and the president has pardoned a turkey (and its alternate) each year.

Until 2004, the spared turkeys were sent to Kidwell Farm, a petting zoo at Frying Pan Park in Virginia, where they lived out the rest of their lives in the Turkey Barn. From 2005 to 2009, the turkeys went to either Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals in Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade and then retired to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch.

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In 2010, Disney stopped taking pardoned turkeys and President Obama’s birds were sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia — which is where this year's turkeys will spend the holidays, too. The pardoning ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday in the Rose Garden, and the White House social media team really went overboard this year:

The turkey with the less-popular Twitter hashtag will be killed and eaten, right? No, according to the White House, "both turkeys travel to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens where they will be on display for visitors during 'Christmas at Mount Vernon.' The turkeys will then travel to their permanent home at Morven Park's Turkey Hill, the historic turkey farm located at the home of former Virginia Governor Westmorland Davis in Leesburg, Virginia."

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Food
Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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