WASHINGTON — Americans will feast on smoked, fried, spatchcocked or just plain roasted turkey carcasses by the millions this Thanksgiving, but not on Peanut Butter and Jelly.
President Joe Biden continued one of the White House’s strangest traditions on Friday afternoon, pardoning two cutely named birds ahead of the holiday. The turkeys spent Thursday night in style at the Willard Hotel and are now set to live out the rest of their short lives on the animal sciences campus of Indiana’s Purdue University.
The annual turkey pardoning ceremony is mostly a joke, spoofing the executive’s sweeping federal clemency power, granted by the Constitution. For the turkeys, it means a quiet retirement. Corn and Cob, pardoned last year by then-President Donald Trump, were taken to Iowa State University and “are doing well,” according to a school spokeswoman.
Before that, turkeys landed at Virginia Tech’s “Gobblers Rest” for several years, where Bread and Butter, spared from the dinner table in 2019, remain alive and clucking. Peas and Carrots, pardoned in 2018, have since “died of natural causes that come with birds that age,” said Zeke Barlow, a spokesman for the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Turkeys bred for food have a lifespan of only a couple of years.
Changing up the destination gives each the “opportunity to host the turkeys and highlight the importance of agriculture education,” the National Turkey Federation’s Beth Breeding said in an email.
Peanut Butter and Jelly break the recent streak of naming pardonees after side dishes found on the Thanksgiving table. They got their start in Indiana, raised by grower Andrea Welp.
This year’s ceremony comes during a harried time in Washington, as Democrats try to push a budget reconciliation package through Congress containing key parts of Biden’s agenda. The House passed the bill on Friday morning, as Biden fit in some pre-holiday errands, getting a medical checkup at Walter Reed Medical Center and undergoing a colonoscopy. Meanwhile, Republicans have blamed the president for high inflation rates and highlighted rising grocery costs.
Pardoning the turkeys is meant to strike a lighter note, though not everyone is laughing. The tradition has a convoluted history. Some see a link to Abraham Lincoln, whose son supposedly asked him to spare a turkey’s life. Later, Rhode Island’s “Poultry King” Horace Vose sent slaughtered turkeys as gifts to presidents like Ulysses S. Grant.
That’s not to say that presidents didn’t get gifts of live animals too. Calvin Coolidge received a raccoon in 1926 named Rebecca, but the first family decided not to turn her into a Thanksgiving feast. Instead, she spent her days in the White House as a pet, unscrewing jars and — her favorite, according to Grace Coolidge — playing in a half-filled bath with a bar of soap.
The modern tradition began to take shape in 1947, said Lina Mann, a historian at the White House Historical Association. In the food shortages that lingered after World War II, the federal government called for temperance and “poultryless Thursdays.” That caused outrage, and crates of “hens for Harry” addressed to Harry Truman arrived in protest, she said.