Thanksgiving means it’s time to talk turkey

November 22, 2018

Turkey time is here, and while those toms taste great, off the plate they’ve also spawned their own literary form: the turkey note.

If you didn’t grow up in Davenport, Iowa, you probably only think of it as that place where the state looks like a nose being stuck into the Mississippi River. But but folk lore says Davenport also birthed the Thanksgiving tradition of turkey notes.

Turkey notes are short poems put at each Thanksgiving guest’s place. For proper presentation, turkey notes should be rolled in colored construction or tissue paper and fastened in the middle or at each end with string, ribbon, or tape. This way, the notes are a surprise when they are read aloud in front of all the guests before the meal begins.

My mom, Celeste, passed away a few years ago, but as anyone who ever attended one of her Thanksgiving smorgasbords can attest, she never failed to please the tables of 20 to 25 who attended our family gatherings. She’d make everything from marshmallow-smothered yams to pecan pies. With her busy in the kitchen before the feast, my elder sister Faith, my younger sister Claire, and I were kept occupied crafting the dozens of turkey notes required by all those guests. My dad, Dennis, a poet, assisted with the occasional rhyme and the frequent spelling correction.

For the turkey note purist, each poem should consist of four lines. The first two should include a turkey and a color, the third line is always, “Turkey says,” and the final line rhymes with the second line. Sometimes turkey notes tease, and sometimes they express love, or gratitude, but they’re always silly.

A traditional turkey note might read like this:

Turkey magenta

Turkey tangerine

Turkey says

“You’re a beauty queen”

My sister Faith offers this one from the family archives:

Turkey brown

Turkey white

Turkey says,

“Eat with might!”

Over time, the poems have transformed, and different families have their own slightly different traditions. I frequently like to make the first two lines include related items rather than colors. For instance,

Turkey trombone

Turkey slide

Turkey says,

“Take a jazz ride.”

It’s always the most fun when each note has a theme that somehow relates specifically to its intended reader.

Legend has it that turkey notes first appeared in Davenport during the late 1800s. Some credit their invention to a single family who hosted a big feed and sent its guests away with the idea. Others attribute the notes to a local teacher’s class project. It’s also been suggested that the tradition originated with the town’s newly arrived German immigrants.

However the tradition started, my wife, Beth, who also grew up in Davenport, and I have brought the tradition with us to Rochester. Our daughters Eleanor, 11, and Abigail, 8, help make turkey notes every year. Here’s a sample of one of our family favorites written by Eleanor:

Turkey tart

Turkey fart

Turkey says,

“I love you with all my heart.”

The great thing about Thanksgiving is it offers the chance to consider blessings. I’ve been blessed with a family that nurtures creativity, and turkey notes are just one of the ways I’m able to look back and remember the loving environment my mom created at all the great family gatherings she hosted.

Though turkey notes might be a bit goofy, they certainly create a way to bring any group of people together before sharing a meal, and I’m glad to pass this tradition on to my own children. Lets all gobble together.

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