If the turkey growing industry had one marketing mission in the early 20th century it was to get consumers to eat more turkey, and to eat it year-round.

So, during the Depression turkeyburgers arrived upon the dining scene.

In the mid-1930s humorists found rich material in California cuisine, notably in the range of burgers found at weird and fanciful roadside eateries. Among them chickenburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, lobsterburgers, even mysterious huskyburgers. And on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles a commentator spotted a neon sign advertising “The Snack with a Smack – Our Toasted Turkeyburger.”

The stories that appeared in the press attributed turkeyburgers to California’s bizarre culture. But what they didn’t say was that in the 1930s California was becoming a major turkey producer. Production had moved westward from its East Coast home of origin. In California, dry weather conditions were more favorable for turkey raising. But in 1936 overproduction resulted in a serious drop in prices. This was bad for producers but good for Depression-era drive-ins and roadside stands. And now producers were more interested in increasing turkey consumption than ever before.

Gonzales, Texas, was another important turkey-raising area. A local newspaperman there had a product placement idea about how to stimulate turkey sales. He suggested that since the comic strip character Wimpy was known for his love of hamburgers, it would make sense to introduce turkeyburgers into the strip. Wimpy started eating them in December of 1939.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Texas, a drug store was offering a December holiday lunch of sorts, “Something New”: a Turkey-Burger with waffle potatoes and cranberry sherbet, for 19 cents. Also in 1939, someone in Phoenix registered the trade name Turkey-Burger with the Arizona Secretary of State. It’s interesting, too, that the Berkeley, California, menu shown below, possibly from the 1930s, says “copyrighted!” following “Turkeyburger Sandwich.” (Thanks to the reader who sent me a scan of this menu and inspired this post.)

With rationing of beef, pork, veal, and lamb in World War II more restaurants added turkeyburgers and other turkey dishes to their menus. In 1941 the magazine Chain Store Age tested recipes for turkeyburgers and turkey salads on behalf of in-store soda fountains and luncheonettes. It showed that turkeyburgers had high profit potential: if a turkeyburger on a bun was served with cranberry sauce, sliced tomato, and potato salad, the magazine reported, it could be priced at 25 cents while costing only 6.55 cents. A few years later Payless stores in Albany, Oregon, cashed in on the idea, boldly charging 40 cents for their sandwich.

In the 1950s drive-ins served turkeyburgers. In 1950 they were up to 65 cents at Vogel’s Drive-In in Ogden, Oregon, though only 30c a few years later at Moeby’s Hamburger Palace in Eureka, California. A Texas drive-in revived the idea of burger variety, offering sandwiches made of chicken, turkey, rabbit, shrimp, or pork, all for 40 cents. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1969 Ferdinand’s in Honolulu’s Coral Reef Hotel, which specialized in 16 kinds of burgers, offered a Turkey Burger Deluxe on Thanksgiving Day.

Starting in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s – and continuing today — turkeyburgers came to represent a healthier substitute for a hamburger, one with less fat and fewer calories.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019


Filed under drive-ins, food, restaurant customs, roadside restaurants

8 responses to “Turkeyburgers

  1. Grateful

    I’ve been savoring Jan’s Turkey Burger blog. Never dreamed they were popular in the 1930s too. Jan, you bring history to life. Thank you.

  2. Grateful

    I’ve been savoring Jan’s Turkey Burger blog. Never dreamed they were popular in the 1930s too. Jan, you bring history to life. Thank you.

  3. I have been thinking about turkey burgers for days now! Here in the UK I can buy Turkeys, frozen or fresh, and when we’ve had a turkey it has always been a free-range organic Bronze Turkey from a local farm. But what intrigues me is that I can buy chicken breasts, chicken joints, chicken thighs, drumsticks etc – but only whole turkeys. In the US/Canada can you buy turkey in bits (so to speak)?

  4. Firstly, Happy Thanksgiving from Scotland! Secondly, are Turkey burgers still made/sold/eaten? I am not absolutely averse to the idea of them. Whole turkeys are so huge and can often be very dry when cooked (even when brined) and you are eating left-overs in various forms for ages…a juicy, well seasoned turkey burger sounds much more inviting! BTW in the UK turkey is often the bird of choice for Xmas. As a family we usually go for Goose or Rib of Beef.

    • I think some restaurants may have them on the menu, and I believe you can buy ground turkey and make your own, though they might be a bit bland without some doctoring.

      • Besimple

        I don’t care for them but I still see them on menus and you can buy frozen, pre-formed turkey burgers in the grocery store. This was, again, a very interesting post. I thought they only went back to the late 70’s as a supposedly healthier option.

  5. Anne Bonney

    Your blog is always interesting. Happy Thanksgiving.

  6. Great post, but I’ll save the idea for post-Thanksgiving leftovers!

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