Seemingly, this authority to pardon federal criminals has been extended to turkeys. Most turkeys have been privately executed each Thanksgiving season, but for at least the past half century, the president has pardoned one or two birds each year.
On this year’s Thanksgiving eve, President Obama pardoned two turkeys. Each bird was 20 weeks old and weighed 48 pounds. One of the turkeys was named Mac, and the other was named Cheese.
To most people, including myself, the turkey pardoning has merely been just another White House tradition that the president undertakes for the public. Perhaps it is a tongue-and-cheek way of showing support for our nation’s agriculture, and more specifically, turkeys.
The origin of this annual tradition is unclear. Legend has it that the tradition began in 1863 during Lincoln’s presidency. According to an official White House blogger, the story begins with Tad Lincoln who pled to his father to grant clemency for a turkey destined for the White House dining table. In another legend captured by a New York Times article, Tad Lincoln named this lucky turkey “Jack”, which then became a “First Turkey”—that is, a pet that followed Tad around.
From 1873, during President Grant’s term, a Rhode Island farmer named Horace Vose began sending turkeys to the White House every Thanksgiving, even though not all birds ended up on the dinner table. However, since Vose continued this practice for the next quarter century, he earned himself publicity and established a new White House tradition. Vose died by the start of World War I, which then prompted a wide range of individuals and organizations to send turkeys to the White House.
The present day tradition has been somewhat consistent since 1947. In 1947, President Truman hosted a photo-op for the turkey donated by the National Turkey Federation. Since that Thanksgiving, the National Turkey Federation has provided turkeys to the president; this year’s event marked the 67th annual National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation.
Although President Truman might have started an annual turkey presentation, the turkeys in this era were not pardoned, but were rather cooked for the president. It wasn’t until 1963 when President Kennedy chose not to eat the turkey presented to him and returned it to its farm. President Nixon did something similar by sending his turkeys to a local petting zoo.
President George H.W. Bush was the first president to grant an official pardon to the White House turkey. Ironically, upon release, one of the turkeys was sent to a park named “Frying Pan Park” in the outskirts of the Washington, D.C. metro area.
Gone are the days where a private citizen like Vose can offer a turkey to the White House each Thanksgiving, as the White House does not currently accept perishable donations, such as food, for security reasons.
If you want to eat a presidential turkey, though, you can do so by purchasing the Grand Champion brand turkey from Jaindl Farms, which is the Orefield, Penn. farm that has supplied the White House with turkeys for actual consumption for the past forty years.