There are a lot of ways to cook a turkey, and today Americans will be trying all of them. Deep-fried, brined, baked and dipped in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos dust — the starring bird will take many forms on the Thanksgiving table this year.
But while the costuming is up for grabs, the turkey itself is more or less a guarantee. In fact, for the last 154 years — ever since President Lincoln first enshrined a national day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November in 1863 — turkeys accompanied by cranberry sauce and potatoes (both sweet and white) have consistently been served on dinner tables nationwide.
Many things have changed since then, but Thanksgiving dinner has not. When Americans are ready to say thanks for all they have, only one piece of poultry will do: 88 percent of us will be eating a turkey dinner at some point later today.
Which is not to say Thanksgiving is not a meal without evolutions, big and small. While much of what we prepare as a nation comes from something of a preset list, we’ve managed to change up the menu a little along the way.
Jello salads, for example, were a common Thanksgiving side dish in the 1950s and 1960s for reasons science has yet to wholly unpack. There was a time in America when Thanksgiving wasn’t real until you’d consumed a neon-colored “salad” composed of jello, marshmallows, pineapple and ham. Then, equally unexplained, jello salads disappeared from dinner tables in 1980, and we as a nation collectively decided we would never speak of them ever again.
As of 2017, Thanksgiving’s evolution is continuing forward into the future. Consumers particularly concerned about the ethical origin of their turkey can now use blockchain to learn their bird’s entire life history up until the moment it’s cooked for dinner. (No part of that sentence would have made any sense as recently as the year 2000.)
Consumers who don’t want to shop or who live in urban areas might have their groceries delivered, possible on the same day, possibly directly out of the recipe they were cooking from.
And those who don’t live in urban areas? Walmart and Kroger were good enough to deliver the entire holiday grocery haul to your trunk.
The unexpected lesson of Thanksgiving is that the more the holiday remains the same, the more it changes — for this year at least — in ways that gave customers a lot more to be #thankful for.
For example ...
A Year of (Inexpensive) Bounty
Following a year filled with grocery-warring and ancillary price-cutting, the cheaper costs of grocery goods will likely be on every home chef’s “thankful” list this year.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, 2017’s dinner table prices are hitting five-year lows. A ten-person spread with all the trimmings will cost an average of $49.12: a $0.75 drop from last year.
“The last time Thanksgiving was this cheap was 2013,” John Newton, the federation’s Market Intelligence director. “The fact you can have that classic meal for under $5 per person says a lot about the U.S. farmer and the harvest they produce every year.”
This is the second consecutive year of price drops, according to the National Retail Federation, and this year, the big cost depressor was in turkey prices.
The average cost of a turkey was $22.38 this year — versus $22.74 last year — a decline of 1.6 percent.
“Wholesale turkey prices are now below $1 [per pound] for the first time since 2013,” said Newton. “We have an abundant supply of turkeys, and that’s really leading to some of the lower prices that consumers are seeing at the grocery store.”
Turkeys increasingly have been used by stores as the favored Thanksgiving loss leader, on the argument that once the bird is in hand, the customer will also stop to pick up the fixings while they are at the store. The competition to gobble up the turkey-buyers this year has gotten particularly intense. Amazon decided to do the market one better by cutting prices on both organic and antibiotic-free turkeys at its newly owned Whole Foods subsidiary — and then cut prices even deeper for Amazon Prime customers.
But some side dish prices are up: Pumpkin pie mix was up by 2.6 percent, whipped cream jumped 4 percent and 12 ounces of fresh cranberries went up 1.7 percent. In percentage terms, the highest increase this year was cubed stuffing, rising 5.2 percent over 2016 levels.
For the rest of the sides, prices have been lower than normal, as “Thanksgiving basket costs” were also decreased across the retail ecosystem.
The price of a basket of Thanksgiving items, including a 12-pound turkey, is down 6.7 percent from last year to $54.84 at Walmart Stores, Inc., according to a report from Bloomberg Intelligence. Ahold Delhaize-owned Stop & Shop saw a 9.7 percent price drop year over year to $62.93. German discount chain Aldi saw the smallest drop — but still a drop — of 2.6 percent to $41.19. Whole Foods — despite all the Amazon reductions in price — is still the cost leader in the group by a wide margin: A basket of mostly organic goods will run a shopper $113.71. But it is also the biggest drop year over year — down about 16 percent from 2016.
Part of the issue, noted Jennifer Bartashus, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, is that while prices are low, every retailer has an incentive to just keep cutting.
“Nobody wants to be the first one to raise prices,” she said. “It’s remarkable, coming out of a sustained period of deflation, that the prices haven’t crept up more. You’re seeing people really holding prices down.”
Plus, stores not only have to compete with each other; they have to compete with the rest of the food economy that is racing for their dollars.
Eating Out — and Ordering In
An interesting factoid emerged this holiday season, care of the good people at Butterball, about Americans and turkey. Despite their fondness for it and near-universal commitment to eating it on Thanksgiving, Americans are actually not all that sure how to cook it.
According to the study, 80 percent of first-time millennial hosts are nervous that they might over- or undercook the turkey. Even 43 percent of experienced cooks share the exact same concern.
So, how to solve the problem when one literally needs to talk turkey? Well, you can call Butterball, which has a Turkey Talk-Line.
“While we know Thanksgiving can be full of little stresses, we also know it’s important to not sweat the small stuff,” said Sue Smith, the co-director of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line.
One might argue, however, that calling the Butterball turkey-roasting hotline for Thanksgiving does, in fact, constitute sweating the small stuff — which is probably why 13 percent of Americans are deciding that cooking this holiday can officially be someone else’s problem.
This year, 9 percent of consumers will eat Thanksgiving dinner out, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association. That number is up from six years ago. In 2011, about 6 percent of diners ate out for Thanksgiving — although the dining out number is largely flat from last year.
However, there was a notably bigger pickup among those who said they are eating at home but having someone else do the cooking. About 4 percent said they would buy a complete meal — a dinner in a box (think Martha Stewart’s offering this year or something delivered by a local restaurant).
That number goes up to 15 percent, however, when diners were asked if they would have part of their meal delivered pre-prepared. The number one dish consumers looked to have made outside the home?
The turkey. (Of course.)
Honestly, going pre-prepped might not be the worst idea in the world, depending on your guests. And yet, while about 74 percent of those surveyed by Butterball noted that they didn’t expect Thanksgiving or its turkey to be perfect (because togetherness was the real point of the holiday), a whole 26 percent said they expect perfection.
Hopefully people with a lot of guests in the 26 picky percent had the good sense to buy two turkeys this year, since they weren’t priced outrageously for them.