This year marks the 70th anniversary of the National Turkey Presentation—a Thanksgiving tradition that started when Harry Truman accepted a live gobbler as a gift from the National Turkey Federation during a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
The process has become much more elaborate in modern times. Today’s “presidential turkeys” are raised by alternating NTF chairmen and are coddled like household pets. They’re given adorable names—who could eat Pecan and Pumpkin?—and generally treated like Thanksgiving royalty. You can understand why the past 12 administrations have “pardoned” the birds. (Truman’s landed on his table.)
So how are the birds chosen? And what is it like to be the most famous fowl in the world (at least for a few days)? We talked to NTF Chairman Carl Wittenburg, who raised this year’s turkeys, Wishbone and Drumstick, on his farm in Douglas County, Minnesota.
They were raised as part of a “presidential flock.”
Becoming a presidential turkey isn’t a strut in the park. Wishbone and Drumstick were chosen from an initial flock of 80 poults (i.e. baby turkeys). Wittenburg, his wife Sharlene, and a group of five 4-H high-schoolers raised the day-old chicks in a “presidential suite,” which for turkeys means a cushy shed appointed with an American flag. The farmers spent 20 weeks rearing and observing the birds to weed out the top tier.
“We selected based on the character, the personality, the strut, the gate, the pitch—all the qualities in a turkey,” says Wittenburg. “Showmanship is the key. What you want is a turkey that has some character.”
The final flock came down to a group of 11, which Wittenberg and his team observed during a “pageant” to select the lucky two: the official Thanksgiving turkey to be presented at the White House, and his “wingman” (or alternate). The White House is currently running an online poll to determine which will be first and second.
“We’re taking two males because they’re strutters and puff their feathers, and really show the beauty of the turkey,” says Wittenburg.
Their favorite song is “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner.
By nature, male turkeys can be aggressive—and the White House doesn’t want another eagle incident. In order to get ready for the big day, Wittenberg and his team spent plenty of time with the birds to familiarize them with humans. Wishbone and Drumstick underwent media-training with flashing, camera-like lights, and practiced perching on a podium. A radio in the barn played constant music to familiarize the birds with noise. Tunes ranged from classic rock to country, but there’s only one that got them going.
“Foreigner and ‘Hot Blooded’ was their favorite,” says Wittenburg. “They gobbled every time.”
It just goes to show: you can take the turkey out of Minnesota, but you can’t take the temperament out of the turkey.
They traveled to DC on the “Turkey Pike.”
There’s no Air Fowl One for these birds. Like many Thanksgiving commuters, Wishbone and Drumstick were packed in a van with their necessities (cages, feed, water). One special perk: the Federal Transportation Administration designed the route from Minnesota to DC, dubbed the “Turkey Pike.” The birds were also chauffeured by a pro, “a gentleman within our turkey family,” according to Wittenburg, who’s escorted several presidential poults. “He’s a big guy too—and very protective.”
They’re spending a night in a luxury hotel.
In recent years the presidential turkeys have spent the night prior to their pardoning in a luxe hotel by the White House, including the W and Willard InterContinental. One would think that the birds might behave like foreign diplomats and try to curry favor with the President by staying at the Trump hotel.
“That might have been something that was talked about amongst the Beltway, but there was not one thing whispered to us in Minnesota,” says Wittenburg.
Instead, Wishbone and Drumstick will remain in a bi-partisan room at the Willard. Their suite is outfitted with everything they need—water, food, straw—or you might catch them gobbling in the lobby.
They may be college bound.
If all goes according to plan at the National Turkey Presentation on Tuesday, Wishbone and Drumstick will join Tater and Tot, who reside at “Gobbler’s Rest” on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. The special facility is part of the university’s poultry science program, and the four will live out their days under the care of students and professors. That is, if all goes according to plan.
“It’s totally up to the President of the United States to decide what he wants to do,” says Wittenbrug. “I can’t predict.”