What Makes Texas “Texas”?: Let’s Talk Turkey Y’all

To discern what makes a Thanksgiving distinctly Texan, let’s start with the Texas town named Turkey. Located at the southern end of the panhandle with a population around 400, Turkey’s claims to fame include being home to the first Phillips 66 gas station in Texas, professional gambler Amarillo Slim, and country music performers Bob Wills and Joe Barnhill. The town was also in the news in 2011 when PETA petitioned its leadership to change the name temporarily to “Tofurky” for an annual campaign aimed at encouraging people to not eat meat. 

But a name isn’t everything. Despite the translation meaning leather or hide, the southeast Texas town of Cuero—the self-proclaimed Turkey Capital of the World—makes the bigger fuss over Thanksgiving. Cuero’s annual Turkey Trot began in 1912 with a turkey drive in which thousands of the birds were herded through the streets and humans went on to enjoy a carnival, dance, football game, and agricultural exhibits. The Cuero Heritage Museum even has a permanent exhibit to honor the event and its impact on the community.


Not surprisingly, history records distinctly thankful communal events in Texas long before the pilgrims arrived. Predating the Mayflower by nearly 80 years, Coronado led an expedition to find the Seven Cities of Cibola in 1541. He was guided by a Pueblo Indian the Spaniards called La Turque (or, the Turk). When they arrived at Palo Duro Canyon near modern-day Amarillo, Friar Juan de Padilla celebrated Mass in thanks for their success.

Then, in 1598, an expedition team of 500 people, led by Juan de Oñate, spent 50 days crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. They reached the Rio Grande at the future site of El Paso and gave thanks for surviving their desert trek by feasting on fish and fowl. As well, in what must have been the first Thanksgiving play, Captain Marcos Farfán de los Godos rendered the event in a script, including the Pueblos’ conversion to Christianity. In 1991, El Paso residents revived the script and now reenact the event every April. 


As they have often done, Texans held on to their own Thanksgiving traditions long after President Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as the national holiday. For many years, regional Texans continued to celebrate the 16th century dates too. Even when Congress specified the fourth Thursday—in answer to the “What if there are five Thursdays in the month and Christmas shopping is delayed?” problem—Texas continued to celebrate on the last Thursday for some time, perhaps to coincide with the enshrined Texas vs. Texas A&M football game. 


Texas feasts are a great reflection of the Lone Star State itself. With an eclectic variety of traditional American, Hispanic, German, and Southern tastes, a Texan’s table is quite likely to be a melting pot of flavor as much as it is nostalgic. To begin with, you are allowed to eat your holiday dinner at Whataburger, but if you decide on a turkey, Texas has two traditional ways of cooking the bird—deep fried or beer can. To ratchet up the Southern flavor, Texans forego dinner rolls for biscuits, which are much better for sopping up gravy and make better leftovers for breakfast. 

Regardless of your favorites, however, it is important to know, if one wants to receive or retain one’s Texas card, remember… it is dressing, not stuffing!  See page 61 for an ultra traditional recipe.

And, perhaps not exclusively in Texas, but at least commonly, the turkey may be complemented with tamales. Pork is the favorite but tamales are great with everything from cheese to sweet raisin, depending on which abuela or local hookup is providing the goodies. For dessert, a state-nut-pecan pie is not required by law but it is the best bit of sweet goodness to serve with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. 


While the UT-A&M game is no longer a factor due to A&M changing conferences, some are consoled knowing they can kick back and watch the Dallas Cowboys as the tryptophan begins to kick in. While not a league contract, the late afternoon game has been a tradition since 1966. It began as one of several brilliant publicity grabs by team manager Tex Schramm to bring national attention to the Cowboys prior to their league dominance in the 1970s. Fans beat attendance records at their first Thanksgiving game and the Cowboys have played nearly every year since.

Tex was also the one responsible for hiring professional dancers as cheerleaders, and the annual holiday exposure didn’t hurt their ascendancy in the entertainment world either. 

Regardless of your favorite food or football team, our Georgetown View team wishes all our readers and neighbors a healthy, happy, and very Texan Thanksgiving.