Thanksgiving Tofu?

Michael Metzger

Treated Like Tofu
“You cut the toikey without me?!?” This scene in Avalon should spark a question: why was turkey being served at all? The first Thanksgiving feast probably didn’t include it. What changed between 1621 and today? The tale of how turkey became a Thanksgiving tradition is a story of how cultures change – a lesson for faith communities if they don’t want to be treated like tofu turkey.

The tale of the turkey doesn’t begin with the first Thanksgiving feast. Only half of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers survived the wicked winter of 1620-21, fighting the cold by never changing clothes. Native Americans, on the other hand, “protected themselves from cold, insect bites and so on with a thick layer of fat or grease,” reports historian Godfrey Hodgson.1 They came together for a dinner that probably didn’t feature turkey since it was scarce in Massachusetts, as it also was in England, where it had been introduced from the Mediterranean and derived its name. So how did turkey become a tradition?

It started when the Puritans founded Harvard College in 1636.

This might not seem remarkable until you remember these hardy colonists had braved the wild freezing ocean and were now confronting disease, starvation, and ferocious enemies. Why start a college now? The Puritans were part of a faith tradition depicting God as a rational being with the universe as his creation, awaiting human comprehension.2 Comprehension required education – a Christian tradition dating from the monastic movement that led to the modern university, notes historian Rodney Stark.3 Oxford, Cambridge, and – in the New World – Harvard were part of this tradition of cultivating God’s creation. But what does Harvard have to do with hens and toms?

This educational tradition led to the founding land-grant universities, beginning with Michigan State University on February 12, 1855. These universities specialized in academic research for agriculture, and that included the taming of turkeys. But academic research wasn’t enough for turkey to become a tradition.

The next step came in the 1900s with the advent of Agricultural Experiment Stations. Every county in the US has an agent translating academic research into technologies for farmers, including turkey farmers. But more was needed for turkey to become a tradition.

The final step was developing a continuous feedback loop for county agents and academics. Farmers played this role as practitioners in the field, applying technologies and telling the translators and academics what actually worked and didn’t work. This three-level arrangement, called the American agricultural system, made the US the breadbasket for the world. And it explains how turkeys were tamed and became a tasty tradition – quite a change from the first feast in 1621. These steps sum up how cultures change, through institutions working together and not simply individuals working hard.

As a matter of fact, the Thanksgiving turkey benefited from additional networks of entrepreneurs and politicians, including Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, Mr. Birdseye’s work on refrigeration, Henry Ford’s assembly line, and Dwight Eisenhower’s national highway system. These overlapping networks of institutions are why you bought that 25-pound frozen bird at Winn-Dixie, and why tofu turkey probably won’t be replacing the traditional turkey any time soon.

Research indicates tofu turkey is a healthy alternative to the traditional turkey. But this isn’t enough for tofu to replace a tradition. The problem is tofu’s trumpeters largely operate outside the networks of translators and practitioners that run food distribution institutions. It’s largely ignored as an oddity for odd people, meaning tofu might be a better deal but it’s unlikely to change our culture any time soon. By the way, this is the same predicament for faith communities. Research indicates the Good News is healthier than the usual mumbo-jumbo we hear and see everyday. But faith communities mostly operate outside the networks of translators and practitioners that run the culture-institutions conveying popular images of the Good Life. The result: the gospel is largely ignored as an oddity for odd people, just like tofu turkey.

Too many of us have forgotten that faith communities in the past did change culture by influencing institutions. Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation were part of a network including Gregory of Rimini, Joseph von Staupitz, Phillip Melancthon, Theodore Beza, Jean Sturrn, and Claude Baudel that provided leadership at the center of the key religious and intellectual networks of Europe. They, in turn, recreated the German university, and invented a new institution, the “academy” as the heart of social and cultural innovation. The same model explains the abolition of slavery in England. It wasn’t so much the work of William Wilberforce as it was the Clapham circle, a powerful network of Christian abolitionists that carried the day.

My hope is that faith communities will once again carry the day. But it will require recalibrating the length of time and breadth of networks needed to change culture. For example, the Thanksgiving “tale of the toikey” took over 300 years to institute one simple tradition. We need to recognize that our well-intended plans to “change the world in this generation” are nothing short of ludicrous, given that we’re currently outside the culture-shaping institutions and networks. It doesn’t have to be this way and faith communities can change their strategy. But it will take a new model of overlapping networks that include academics, translators, and practitioners to do it.

1 Godfrey Hodgson, A Great & Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims & the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2006), p. 103.
2 Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 147.
3 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York, NY: Random House, 2005), p. 52.


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  1. I really liked your blog. Very useful information, I read it detail, also book-marked it and will be back in the future to read some more of your interesting posts ! keep up the good work. 🙂

  2. Mike,

    You continue to produce some of the most insightful and fresh biblical insights into life of anyone now writing. This is another example. I do want to add perhaps one clarifying thought to your comment that it was not so much Wilberforce but the Clapham Circle that ended the slave trade and then slavery in England in the 19th Century.

    I think the more accurate accounting is that of Howse (Saints in Politics) who described the Clapham Circle (some of whom like Clarkson preceded Wilberforce in the movement) as rivulets who Wilberforce turned into a force like unto a river that washed away the stain of slavery. Without the Clapham Circle he never could have achieved the role of “the Washington of humanity” and he would have said as much himself. But without Wilberforce, the members of the Clapham Circle never would have been part of the great force that transformed the culture of England into the Victorian era and, in addition, ended the slave trade and slavery. Though Jefferson held similar views and much earlier and sought to stop slavery in Virginia as early as 1769, he never had a community around him nor a sense of a calling that he could not let go as Wilberforce did. He also did not believe in a God who would not fail him and who could accomplish the seemingly impossible that energized both Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle to persist for 40 years.

    In short, we do need faith communities, we need called leaders who serve, and above all, we need a God who goes before us and alongside us every step of the way.

    Keep up the incredible, anointed work.

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