The True Origin Of The Tofurky

Thanksgiving is all about food, and the traditional menu can be rigid. Interestingly enough, it is likely that few, if any, of today's festive foods were eaten by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at the first Thanksgiving meal back in 1621. History notes that records from the event mention eating "fowl" — but not which kind — potatoes had not yet been introduced to North America, and Plymouth Colony hadn't even built an oven for baking pies. Instead, historians believe the first Thanksgiving meal consisted largely of the seafood abundant along the region's coast, as well as venison provided by the Wampanoag, says History.

So, the "traditional" dishes we know might not be as traditional as most people think, and if Thanksgiving food clearly changed a great deal since the first celebration, there's no reason it shouldn't continue to do so. The available resources and needs of the people are different today, and there's no better example of this than the plight of a vegetarian at Thanksgiving. What are plant-based eaters to do at such a meat-centric event — subsist on potatoes and pie? This was the problem Seth Tibbott faced when he became vegetarian, and, as Tibbott told Inc, it inspired him to transform the holiday landscape with a bold new invention: Tofurky.

From a punchline to a new tradition

The New Yorker reports that in 1978, environmental educator Seth Tibbott started making tempeh after turning vegetarian. Two years later, the magazine says Tibbott started Turtle Island Foods, based in the kitchen of an abandoned elementary school near Portland, Oregon — but the business barely supported Seth and his small team. 

His fate changed in 1995, after delivering tempeh to vegetarian caterers Hans and Rhonda Wrobel, who were experimenting with tofu roasts, says The New Yorker. They struck up a partnership to sell round roasts alongside "drumsticks" made from tempeh, according to the article, but the team eventually abandoned the drumsticks (of which there were eight, suggesting the Tofurky is an arachnid). The main roast, packed with a wild rice stuffing, has steadily grown in popularity, making Tofurky one of the leading plant-based protein brands.

Tibbott is the first to admit that Tofurky is a silly word, telling Inc: "People told me it was stupid. I knew we needed to embrace it." True, the name is undeniably goofy, but it's also catchy, helping the product to become a cultural phenomenon. The Los Angeles Times notes that Tofurky has been featured in shows as varied as "The X-Files," "Felicity," and "Jeopardy." While the media might poke fun at Tofurky plant-based meats, Tibbott tells Inc that he keeps a collection of comic strips with Tofurky jokes. He even shared a joke of his own: "Why did the Tofurky cross the road? To prove it wasn't chicken."