As part of my occasional series titled “Lives of the Dead,” today’s post will look at the turkey.
This fabled American bird takes its place at the table with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Caesar Augustus, St. Patrick and Martin Luther as subjects of a DavisW’s blog profile. Not dead as a species but with plenty of specific casualties by this time tomorrow, the turkey becomes the first to be a living topic in this space. Let’s take a brief look at its history before we examine its innards over pumpkin pie and coffee at dinner Thursday.
In a way, it’s fitting the turkey be granted this exceptional treatment. As much as his species is appreciated as both a symbol of gratitude and a meat product, there have been no individual turkeys to rise above the rest and distinguish themselves. Other animals at least have had animated anthropomorphs to speak out on their behalf — Donald Duck, Porky Pigg, Sylvester the Cat, Fernando Lamas, the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). There’s never been a single famous turkey.
It’s probably due in part to what’s come to be known in zoology circles as the “K Factor”. The K Factor is that rule which says any animal with a “K” in its name is automatically funny and disrespected. Your monkeys, your donkeys, your yaks and your kangaroos all suffer from this syndrome and can’t get anyone to take them seriously. We laugh at the poor dumb turkey even as we enjoy his succulent thighs simply because it’s fun to say anything that rhymes with “jerky” or “quirky”.
The turkey first came to the attention of an increasingly hungry Western Civilization when 16th-century Europeans exploring America encountered a bird similar to their familiar guineafowl. Since their larger poultry were imported into continental markets through Central Europe from Turkey, they thought of calling the wild Meleagris gallopavo a “Serbian” but eventually settled instead on “turkey”. (That’s why we also get the word “grease” from Greece, and the word “chili” from Chile).
The wild turkey can weigh up to 100 pounds and has a wingspan of almost six feet. They can fly for short distances, mainly when they’re being pursued by predators. Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy wattle that hangs from the underside of their beak which, when combined with their huge breasts, make them resemble actress Pamela Anderson. (You can tell the two apart because the birds have too much sense to go anywhere near Kid Rock). They also have another protuberance growing off the top of their beaks and dangling off to the side called a “snood”. Links to recipes for these appendages, including the famous Wattle Supreme and the underappreciated Stewed Snood, will follow this article.
There’s a fairly extensive fossil record of the early turkeys, starting from the Miocene Epoch over 20 million years ago. Ancient remains have been found throughout the Western Hemisphere and, when they are, inevitably the wishbone is broken in two. The Aztecs called the creature huexolotl, and it was associated with their “trickster god” Tezcatlipoca when it wasn’t being killed and eaten. (Even then, the turkey was laughed at. Aztecs would’ve told each other “that wacky huexolotl and his pal Tezcatlipoca are at it again” if they could’ve pronounced either of the words.)
It’s only been in the last century or so that turkeys became a popular form of poultry. Though it’s likely the meat was served at the first Thanksgiving attended by the Pilgrims and the Indians, that’s probably only because they kept running around the food preparation area. It was actually too expensive to become a staple at holiday meals until just recently. Before World War II, goose or beef was more likely to comprise the common holiday dinner.
When the wild turkey was domesticated, its life became both easier and harder. Today’s birds could live to be ten years old if they weren’t slaughtered at about 16 weeks. They grow up on a factory farm, bred to have magnificent white feathers to make their carcasses more appealing. The male is the tom, the female is the hen, and the baby is a poult, though they don’t spend near enough time together as a family. Mature toms are too large to “achieve natural fertilization,” as Wikipedia delicately puts it, so their semen is manually collected and hens are inseminated artificially. Neither much care for this arrangement, but what are they going to do? Break out on their own and find a nice apartment they could afford on a turkey salary?
Turkeys are popularly believed to be unintelligent. Claims are made that during a rainstorm, they’ll look up at the falling precipitation until they drown. Recent research has shown, however, that many aren’t simply stupid but instead suffer from a genetic nervous disorder known as “tetanic torticollar spasms” that causes them to look skyward. Like human parents embarrassed by the poor performance of their offspring, turkey parents can point to a disorder similar to ADHD as the reason their brats are running around like madmen, toppling lamps and unable to stay focused for more than a few moments.
The turkey is now solidly a part of American lore, especially at this time of the year. Schoolchildren trace outstretched hands to create likenesses of the animal for fall craft projects. Coworkers abandon casual conversation in the breakroom and opt instead to gobble at each other. The turkey lobby brings one lucky tom to Washington so it can receive the traditional presidential pardon, though in an attempt to be seen as moving toward the political center after recent election losses, President Obama is considering slitting its throat this year.
By Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, all we really care about is how to prepare the bird for dinner. Available in the market as either fresh or frozen, the meat typically requires several hours baking or roasting in the oven to become fully cooked. A recent trend has seen the rise of a new method, deep-frying the turkey in an outdoor vat of hot oil for 45 minutes or until the entire set-up explodes and is next seen on YouTube under the title “Butterball goes fireball.”
Ultimately, the dish is surrounded by cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn, and whatever that awful casserole is that your sister-in-law keeps bringing year after year. Extended families come together to share an all-too-brief moment of togetherness before heading back to their separate lives watching televised images of Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions facing their own slaughter. Soon, the notorious “tryptophan coma” descends on the gathering like a cloud of carbon monoxide until participants awake to find themselves waiting in line for Walmart to open at 2 in the morning.
As we pause during the next 24 hours to give thanks for all the bounty we share, let’s not forget to express appreciation to the noble turkey for his contribution. If Ben Franklin had his way, the creature would be our national bird, seen all over our money and other national emblems instead of all over our shirts and tablecloths. And we’d be eating bald eagles for dinner, arguing over who gets the bald spot rather than who gets the drumstick.
I’ve had deep-fried eagle before and, trust me, it’s not something you’d want to eat.
Note: To read more about Lives of the Dead, please visit the following posts: