Thanksgiving Mains: Turkey or Ham?

Photo Courtesy: Pexel by Tima Miroshnichenko

Everyone knows it’s not a good idea to start a debate at the Thanksgiving table. It creates unnecessary tension and awkwardness that takes away from the spirit of togetherness that defines the holiday. That being said, there is one debate that absolutely must be had this Thanksgiving. One that spans across the lines of tradition versus innovation and threatens to redefine the idea of Thanksgiving dinner as a whole. 

It’s time to start (in earnest) the conversation of turkey versus ham for the main dish on Thanksgiving.

On one hand, there is the reigning champion of several decades, turkey, that has successfully fended off other worthy challengers like mashed potatoes and mac & cheese to retain its position atop the Thanksgiving food hierarchy. It makes sense why turkey is the king of Thanksgiving dinner: Turkey developed somewhat of a mythological status in American society after President Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday, and is now a very visible symbol of the American cultural experience, present in the White House lawn for the presidential turkey pardon, and across millions of TV screens tuning into the NFL games on Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, there is the newcomer, ham, that is just stepping into the ring of Thanksgiving dinner, hoping to become the champion of something bigger than the supermarket deli. According to a 2019 article published by the Washington Post, approximately 15 percent of the American population eats ham on Thanksgiving, with a total of 24.75 million pounds of bone-in ham being consumed on the day. While that figure is dwarfed by the amount of turkeys sold for Thanksgiving consumption (46 million), it’s plausible to assume that the majority of Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving are set in their traditions and turkey-preferring ways.

In order to start a conversation about the two meats and their potential to be the main dish of Thanksgiving, the strengths and weaknesses of the meats as food products (as opposed to cultural symbols) need to be compared.

First off, nutrition. According to FoodStruct, a website focusing on the nutritional comparison of food, turkey meat is richer in fat content and vitamins, while ham meat is richer in minerals such as potassium and iron. Overall, the website recommends turkey meat as a healthier alternative to ham, in part due to ham’s high sodium content. It seems that turkey remains the king of Thanksgiving dinner, at least when it comes to nutritional value.

Next, cost efficiency. A 2021 survey conducted by the Farm Bureau found that a 16 pound turkey cost around $23.99, while a 4 pound ham cost $10.87. It’s certainly possible that larger cuts of ham cost less per pound and that turkey prices changed dramatically since the survey was taken, but based on this limited sample of data, turkey has once again bested ham.

Lastly, ease of preparation and versatility. An article published to the website of Vincent’s Meat Market, an online meat delivery service, argues that ham is easier to cook because of its distribution of fat and more versatile due to its compatibility with a variety of seasonings. This category of comparison is more subject to individual preference and taste, but it seems ham has managed to beat turkey by being less of a hassle to prepare.

After comparing and evaluating the viability of both turkey and ham as the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal, it’s clear that ham does not currently have what it takes to win over the hearts and minds of people around the country. Ham is more expensive and generally less healthy to eat than turkey. This is even before considering the rich history of turkey consumption in this country.

It’s settled, then: Turkey remains the most important dish at Thanksgiving for the foreseeable future.