Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey

Well, it is that time of year again. I've got my copy of Planes, Trains and Automobiles all fired up and ready to go, and am getting away from it all in a timeshare rental. It's good to be the Ambassador. But you're probably looking down the barrel at holiday gridlock on the highways or the airports, relatives you could probably take or leave, some dry turkey, and the Christmas shopping onslaught. Let's hope those football games are really, really good. Seriously though, the holidays can be stressful, but it is important to keep an eye on what is truly important: turkey.

That's right, the symbol of Thanksgiving in America. I can't think of another celebration that is so closely identified with eating one specific food like the Thanksgiving turkey. In fact, it is estimated that more than 46 million turkeys will be consumed this Thursday alone. Are you kidding me?! That's more turkeys than there are people in the states of California and Ohio combined. Our relationship with the turkey goes all the way back to the founding of this country, so I guess it is not surprising that we would choose it for a major American celebration. And having a turkey dinner on the 4th of July would be just weird, not to mention hot.

Turkeys are native to the Americas, and helped to keep the European colonists alive when they otherwise might not have. So it is not surprising that they are revered. But our relationship with them seems contradictory and convoluted, too. Even the name "turkey" is a mistake. There is a bird called a guineafowl, which is like a small chicken or quail (and equally yummy). They were known to Europeans as an export from Turkey (the country) and adopted the name turkey. So when Europeans landed in America and encountered the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) they just assumed that they must be really, really, big guineafowl. After all, the New World was just Asia approached from the East instead of from the West. Wasn't it?

Anyway, the name stuck and the wild turkey became a staple of early American life. You may have heard that Benjamin Franklin even wanted it for the national emblem, which is not entirely true. While the deliberations of selecting the bald eagle as our symbol were drawing to a close (after six years), he penned a letter to his daughter, complaining of the choice. He said something like "if you are going to choose a bird that looks like a turkey, why not just use a turkey?" Which is not really a ringing endorsement.

Regardless, it was not long before the domesticated version supplanted the wild one, and access to a turkey dinner was as simple as wringing one's neck and cooking it up. But as time went on, the domesticated turkey went from something that was more or less like a wild turkey, except larger and more docile. Compare that to the enormous Broad Breasted White most people will consume on Thursday, and it seems like two different animals. These birds spend their entire existence indoors, which most breeds won't tolerate, and can easily reach a weight of 50 lbs. Their breasts are so large and their legs so short, they can neither fly nor run. They spend their time mostly banging into one of the other 10,000 birds they are housed with. In fact, their bodies are so out of whack with anything resembling a turkey that they cannot - how should I put this - make baby turkeys. That's right, there's too much "junk" in the way for them to have sex. So the entire lot, all 46 million of them, were impregnated via in vitro fertilization. Think Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs.

But of course everything you hear about domesticated turkeys is not true. For example, it is often said that they are so stupid that they will stare up at the clouds with their mouths agape when it rains, and drown as a result. Now domesticated turkeys are not terribly bright, as compared with wild turkeys. But they are no more or less stupid than say a domesticated chicken. Yet, no one ever accuses chickens of drowning in the rain. Now I've already mentioned that Broad Breasted Whites never go outside, let alone get left in the rain. So you know right there that this is a myth. But the transfixed, upward gaze people have witnessed in these turkeys does occur. But it actually appears to be the result of a nervous disorder. Now imagine being so fat that you couldn't have sex, and being crammed inside with 10,000 other fat idiots in the same boat. If that's not cause for a nervous disorder, I don't know what is!

Seriously though, there are heritage breeds of turkey available that are probably a lot like what early American colonists ate. And if you are a really good hunter (or know one), you might even get a wild turkey. Or just have a ham instead. The point of the day is to be thankful for all the good things you have in this life. Mine are too numerous to mention. But at the top of that list are getting to travel and write about it for a living, and the fact I am not so fat that I cannot make baby turkeys.

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