Thanksgiving Turkey Wishbone: Why We Break It and How to Find It

Here's what to know about the timeless Thanksgiving tradition of breaking the turkey wishbone—and how to win this turkey face-off.

As strange as many of them seem today, all holiday traditions started somewhere. That goes for customs with deep histories, like breaking the turkey wishbone, as well as relatively recent and completely made-up observances. (We’re looking at you, Festivus). Today’s holiday traditions often have roots in pagan rituals—celebrating the summer and winter solstices, for instance—and were later Christianized and, eventually, commercialized.

Many American Thanksgiving traditions, on the other hand, take a different approach. They turn a dark chapter of the country’s past—involving White colonialism, malnutrition, smallpox, and an attempt to establish a theocracy—into a piece of feel-good folklore that has long been taught as the history of Thanksgiving rather than Thanksgiving mythology. When is Thanksgiving centered on the true treatment of Native Americans? Not often enough, but you can change that by creating new traditions that honor and respect Native Americans.

Of course, one Thanksgiving tradition has more of a connection with a specific food than Plymouth Rock: breaking a turkey wishbone. Because everyone’s favorite fowl wasn’t even featured at the first Thanksgiving, the ceremonial breaking of the turkey wishbone has its origins elsewhere. You have a reason to be thankful, though: We’ve investigated the origins of the wishbones tradition, explaining how to find them, and why we break them.

Where is the wishbone on a turkey?

The turkey wishbone—also known as the furcula—is located near the bird’s breast. Bill Nolan, a supervisor of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, is here to walk you through some poultry anatomy, starting with where the fork to find the furcula. “The furcula is the fusion of the two separate clavicles of the turkey at the top of the breast,” he tells Reader’s Digest.

But what’s the function of the furcula? “The wishbone has an important function for the turkey,” Nolan explains. “Its elastic nature serves as a spring, which flexes when the turkey flaps its wings. That ‘spring’ releases energy for the wings.” Meanwhile, “find the furcula” should really be on any list of Thanksgiving quotes moving forward.

How do you find and remove a turkey wishbone?

According to Nolan, it’s best to locate the turkey wishbone before cooking the bird. Here’s how he advises searching for the wishbone:

  1. Set the raw turkey on a freshly cleaned surface—a cutting board is ideal.
  2. Make sure to have the breast side up, with the legs at the bottom and pointing at you.
  3. Using a paring knife, cut away some of the skin at the top of the breast, in between the two halves.
  4. Feel down into the meat until you find the wishbone.

Once you’ve found it, Nolan says to gently use your knife to cut around the bone on each side and at the top. “You can then gently pull the wishbone out of the turkey, but be careful not to break it as you do so,” he notes. “For safety, remember to wash your cutting board when you’re finished removing the wishbone.” No one wants to deal with post-Friendsgiving food poisoning.

But why not just perform a post-dinner postmortem on the carcass when it’s time to carve the turkey? Nolan says that finding the turkey wishbone before you put it in the oven serves two purposes: “You don’t have to handle a hot turkey that just came out of the oven, and you will be able to slice the breast meat much easier and in larger pieces.”

When is the best time to break the turkey wishbone?

Timing of the tradition varies, but generally speaking people either break the turkey wishbone on Thanksgiving Day or wait to break it at the next holiday. “Many people like to break the wishbone after dinner, but ideally you want the bone to dry out before the breaking,” Nolan says. If the turkey wishbone isn’t sufficiently dry, you won’t experience that signature snap.

So how much drying time are we talking about? According to Nolan, the process can take a week or longer, so some people save the tradition until Christmas and have the breaking contest then. With theirs essentially a Christmas turkey wishbone, they create other traditions for turkey day, like watching Thanksgiving movies or dancing to Thanksgiving songs with the kids.

If it’s a turkey wishbone emergency—say, the kids are clamoring to have a crack at it—and you need to break it right away, you can still do so. “Other turkey cooks try to dry it in the oven for a short period to accelerate the process,” Nolan says.

Why do we break the turkey wishbone?

People have been eating poultry for a very long time, and there’s no definitive origin story of the Thanksgiving tradition of breaking a turkey wishbone. But the one that has gained the most traction over the years involves the people of an ancient Italian civilization called Etruria, and dates back roughly 2,400 years.

The Etruscans considered hens to be something like oracles. So when they killed one, they’d take out the hen’s collarbone and dry it in the sun. To continue to reap the benefits of the prophetic poultry, the Etruscans would then take the wishbone and stroke it while making a wish. For a while, no wishbones were broken or harmed for the purpose of bringing good fortune or wish fulfillment.

But about 200 years later, the Romans came to town and adopted many Etruscan customs. Thanks to Roman writings, we know that by this point, the Etruscans had moved on from stroking to snapping the wishbone—a shift they attributed to supply and demand. As it turned out, a lot of Etruscans want their wishes granted, but only one bone in a hen’s body offers that opportunity: the V-shaped wishbone, which they thought looked like a human crotch (so, a source of life and pleasure). Without enough bones to go around, they doubled up; pairs made a wish then cracked the bone.

Eventually, the Romans brought the tradition of breaking a wishbone with them to occupy England, where the custom also caught on. It later made it to the New World, courtesy of the so-called Pilgrims. And even though they opted for venison for what is now considered the first Thanksgiving, there were plenty of wild turkeys, ducks, and geese in the area. So when they did kill and eat these waterfowl, they continued the tradition of breaking the turkey wishbone.

Because the Pilgrims are so closely associated with Thanksgiving, it didn’t matter what time of year the settlers broke a turkey’s wishbone or that they never used it to bestow Thanksgiving blessings. Americans of the future would make the connection.

As far as the word itself, the first known use of “wishbone” (to mean the bird body part Nolan described above) was in 1847, according to Merriam-Webster. And the expression of “getting a lucky break”? Some etymologists believe this is a reference to getting the bigger half of a wishbone.

How do you win at breaking the turkey wishbone?

Not only is Nolan an expert in finding the turkey wishbone, but he also knows a thing or two about how to win when you break it. In fact, he has a three-part strategy. So finish watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, polish off your slice of Costco pumpkin pie, then get ready to win the wishbone battle this year.

First, take a close look at the wishbone. “If you have a choice, pick the side that is thicker,” he says. “You have a better chance of winning.”

Then, when it comes time to assume the breaking position, Nolan advises grasping the bone higher up—not at or near the bottom. “This gives you better leverage,” he explains.

Finally, during what you might think would be a feat of strength, Nolan recommends allowing your opponent to do the work. “Let the other person do most of the pulling,” he notes. “This puts the odds more in your favor.”

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Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.