The Art of the Free Thanksgiving Turkey

published Nov 6, 2017
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(Image credit: Liz Apple)

For the first 31 years of my life, I thought turkeys were like toothbrushes, pens, and matches — just things you got for free. Dentists hand out toothbrushes like they’re candy (hehe!), hotels leave out pens for the taking, restaurants practically beg you to take matches on your way out the door, and turkeys, well, my mom had never paid a dime for any of our Thanksgiving turkeys.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, through a conversation with some friends, that I realized that most people paid real cash money for their Thanksgiving birds. “What do you mean, you’re buying a turkey?” I asked, as if I thought once you flipped the calendar to November, the universe just left you a turkey on your doorstep.

I called my mom to find out the deal and she told me she hadn’t gotten a free bird in years, but that she used to have two key ways to get her poultry.

1. Through my dad’s employer.

No, my dad does not work for a turkey farmer. He works in industrial manufacturing and has had at least a half-dozen jobs during my lifetime. And more than a third of those employers gave employees free turkeys. As if to say, “Thanks for coming to work, here’s some meat.”

2. Through a reward program at the supermarket.

When I was younger, my mom used to go through stints shopping exclusively at Pathmark, Acme, or ShopRite. (Now she mixes it up with trips to Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, and Costco.) “Those stores used to make it super easy to get a free turkey,” she says. “You’d have a few months to spend $200, which I’d do quickly while feeding our family of four. Now some of the stores I go to have similar programs but you have to spend closer to $400 — something that’s harder to do for just me and your father.”

Some years, my mom would end up with two (two!) free turkeys and would give one away to a food pantry. If you asked her back then, she wouldn’t have even been able to tell you how much a turkey cost. The only problem with both of these methods is that there were restrictions, she tells me now. You’d have to take whatever the company was offering, and supermarkets would only only be giving away a certain brand.

This year? She’s going to be buying our turkey. It’ll be the 10th turkey she’s ever bought despite hosting Thanksgiving for more than 35 years.

Do you get a free turkey for Thanksgiving? How do you get it?