There is probably no more unfortunate creature on earth than Meleagris gallopavo, the wild and domestic turkey of North America. Forty-six million, according to the National Turkey Federation, were eaten on Thanksgiving Day and I did my share. Despite its name, the web address of the NTF is “eatturkey.org” so I do not believe the foundation is on the side of the bird.
In today’s climate some of us delude ourselves about facts and history while others find it necessary to question everything and be suspicious to a fault. I tend to split the difference.
So, I state without irony that on or about the fall of 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest festival that was the progenitor of today’s Thanksgiving celebration. It was nice while it lasted. Not long after the undocumented horde, many having fled European locations where they felt persecuted and endangered, having arrived on the North America’s eastern shore in search of a better life decided to push westward, stealing the land from the indigenous people, and supplanting them nearly to the point of extinction.
With that on your conscience what’s a few million turkeys every year?
According to The History Channel, lobster, seal, and swans were also on the Pilgrims’ menu. But somehow, it is the turkey which sticks in our minds when we envision the day.
I’ve often figured the turkey’s bad luck is also a factor of their evolution. It is hard to figure out just what nature was trying to produce when this beast was created. The wild turkey is one of many flightless fowl. And it must have a tough time getting away from predators. My Scottish Terrier used to love to terrorize the wild turkeys in the neighborhood. They may not have been able to fly but they could jump a good half a block down the street when they heard his bark.
But while life must be hard for these scrawny, funny looking wild birds, they are far more fortunate than their well-bred cousins. I mean bred as in Butterball bred. The Butterball brand is found on many of the turkeys sold for Thanksgiving. Amazing, isn’t it? I’ve always wondered how they get them to grow like that, all dressed, pre-brined, and just ready for the oven. There are people who go into the gory details, but I’ll save that for the stronger members of the audience.
Turkey stories are frequent fodder for local news reporters, and I did my share. I’ve done a live report from the Butterball turkey hot line in suburban Chicago. There experts help you cook your bird. No, the turkeys do not answer the questions.
I’ve interviewed local chiefs debating the hotly contested brined or non-brined question. And of course, I’ve gone out to the turkey farm to talk turkey to the birds themselves.
Out on the farm you learn two secrets. First, whatever you ask them they’ll talk back at you, which makes for great TV. Second, they only know two words. Gobble. And gobble.