Why Are Turkey Legs Called Drumsticks?

by | Nov 25, 2020 | 0 comments

Drumsticks on Plate

There are many things we accept without questioning. However, sometimes we take a step back and realize that something we’ve never thought too much about is a bit weird and finally ask ourselves why. With Thanksgiving approaching, drumsticks seem like an excellent example. Maybe you’re one of those drummers who sits at the table, dishes up some food, and eventually realizes that the food you’re eating has the same name as the tools you use to play your instrument.

So, why are turkey legs called drumsticks? There are two theories, both originating a few hundred years ago.

Dinner Table Etiquette

Society has become substantially more progressive over time. Table talk was a lot more conservative in the 18th and 19th centuries. Certain topics, such as body parts, weren’t considered ‘proper’ to say in the company of “ladies.”

This led to many creative euphemisms for a turkey’s anatomy. “Please pass the leg” just wasn’t considered an acceptable request at the dinner table, so people started referring to turkey legs as drumsticks. Interesting side note – thighs and breasts also required suitable name replacements, hence light and dark meat descriptions. The drumstick trend caught on when chefs started using the terminology in cookbooks.

So, this Thanksgiving, make sure to thank our conservative ancestors when you ask your family member to pass you a drumstick.


Early Drumstick Resemblance

This theory originates from somewhere in the 16th century, meaning it could be related to the previous theory. Drumsticks weren’t always long and thin like the ones we use today. Looking back, we see many paintings of the Aztecs playing a percussion instrument named a Teponaztli with thick mallets.

These ancient mallets had a thick shaft topped with gum resin heads which allowed the mallets to have a fair bit of rebound when they struck the Teponaztli. Many of the paintings depicted the mallets as quite big, giving them a resemblance to turkey legs.

It could be that someone saw these mallets and thought, “hey, those look like the dark meat on a fowl” and started referring to turkey legs as drumsticks. This novel terminology caught on and eventually, everyone was using it. While drumsticks evolved, turkey legs didn’t, hence the continued use of the word drumsticks at the dinner table.


I didn’t particularly enjoy music history in school, but I’m guessing I would’ve had a better time if we’d discussed why turkey legs are known as drumsticks. This is a popular question around Thanksgiving and now you have an answer for your inquisitive family members when they ask it at the table. There seem to be many different names for food that originated from earlier times. I’m thinking of buffalos and how they don’t have wings.

While in the shower, I often wonder: what would happen if I tried to play drums with some turkey drumsticks. Maybe you’ve thought about it too? Well, someone answered this burning question for us. It’s not the prettiest to watch, but it is fairly entertaining! Enjoy!

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