Until early in the 20th Century, when most Americans lived on farms and in small nearby towns, the Thanksgiving turkey had a somewhat longer lifespan than turkeys of today. It was still strutting around in the poultry yard behind the house on the day before the holiday. In many Thanksgiving plans, the doomed bird didn’t meet its fate until just hours before the family gathered for dinner to give thanks.
Until the 1920s and when the age of supermarkets began, many families went to nearby farms to buy and have their turkeys plucked and readied for baking. Others ordered their turkeys live at the local butcher shop several days in advance, and picked up the so-called dressed bird the evening before or the morning of Thanksgiving Day.
In the 21st Century, instead of ever seeing their turkeys alive and fully-feathered, most supermarket customers pick through the selection of cold boxes full of plucked, packaged, raw or frozen whole birds. There is no formal order, and they take a turkey home several days to a week before preparing it for the family Thanksgiving meal.
Of course, today you can still search out and find specialty retail butcher shops, online poultry delivery services and supermarket meat managers who will accept advance orders for turkeys for the holidays. To assure getting the freshest, and if you trust your supplier, you should order yours at least two weeks in advance of the holiday. You may order frozen turkeys from them, too, but most food specialists insist that fresh, never-frozen turkeys have the best taste and texture.
If you absolutely want the freshest of the fresh turkey, there’s one traditional way to get it. If there’s a poultry farm or processing plant within a short drive of your home, do some research about it’s reputation for cleanliness and quality of their products. If you’ll be getting it fresh where it has been raised, order your Thanksgiving turkey a month or so in advance.
Make it an old-fashioned family expedition to pile into the car and go get your turkey. The farm or plant butchers will kill and dress the turkey while you wait. If any family members feel squeamish about it, they may opt to stay home and only see the main course after it has been stuffed and roasted.
The best time to order a Thanksgiving turkey is when taking it home fits in comfortably with your plans to serve it at the holiday dinner.