Tribute to the Turkey

Around this time of year, it is only fit and proper that we pause for a moment of silence for those 50 million turkeys that sacrificed their lives so that we could doze through holiday football in a satisfied, gluttonous haze? If that sounds like a lot of turkeys, it is. That number of turkeys standing as closely packed as possible without jostling one another would occupy about 3 square miles or 1500 football fields. Over the course of a year, Americans eat more than 200 million turkeys, which also seems like a lot until you consider that we eat more than 8 billion – with a “B” – chickens per year.

Of course – delicious as they were – we don’t eat real turkeys on Thanksgiving. We ate their domesticated cousins –domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico more than 2,000 years ago. Conquistadores hauled the domesticated turkey back to Europe in the early 1500’s, where they spread rapidly because of the popularity of their meat, eggs, and feathers, eventually making their way to England, where they got their English name due to a misidentification. The English thought they were African guineafowl – another plump, tasty ground bird with colorful head ornaments – which were commonly imported from Turkey. And so they were called “Turkey fowl.” We now have a quintessentially American bird domesticated in Mexico and named after a Eurasian country which it never inhabited.

Domesticated turkeys were reimported to the Americas with some of the first English colonists, maybe even the very first colonists – those of Jamestown not the late-comers in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Ironically, it isn’t clear that turkeys were actually eaten at that first Thanksgiving. The only contemporary account of that meal by Edward Winslow describes onlythat they ate “fowl,” which could have been ducks, geese, swans, or cranes as easily as turkeys.

Like almost everything else we’ve domesticated, the turkey that most of us eat is a bizarre creature. We have selected it for those large tasty breast muscles which are now so large that they are no longer useful for their primary purpose, which is (was) to fly. Wild turkeys routinely fly short distances. In fact, they roost in trees. But domesticated turkeys are earthbound. We’ve also selected for large, bulky thigh muscles because of our love of drumsticks. So domestic turkeys run awkwardly at best. One thing that hasn’t changed is muscle -- that is, meat -- color. White muscle is designed for short bursts of energy. Wild turkeys use their breast muscles to flap their wings several times per second for short bursts of flight. Dark muscle is packed with energy-storing molecules, which prime that muscle for endurance. Wild turkeys can run for much longer than they can fly. And so turkey breast is white, drumstick meat is dark.

In my home state of Alabama, we are fortunate to have plenty of wild turkeys. These elegant dark-colored birds can be heard gobbling in the forest in the spring. This is the sound of males courting. Male turkeys are in fact properly known as gobblers. During this breeding period males may also develop iridescent red, green, gold, or copper-colored plumage to help attract females. By summer you will see hens followed by their flock of chicks, and in the fall and winter you might see flocks of dozens of turkeys of both sexes foraging for acorns, hickory, and beech nuts on the ground. As is well-known albeit apocryphal, Benjamin Franklin considered the wild turkey so majestic that he favored it over the bald eagle as our national symbol.

The domestic turkey is a different story altogether. In a past life, I spent several weeks each fall making daily visits to a California turkey farm, that just before Thanksgiving held nearly a million birds. These birds were pure white, deafeningly noisy, and spectacularly stupid. The reason I visited the farm each afternoon was to retrieve carcasses of birds that were trampled to death in the turkey stampede that invariably accompanied the appearance of the feed truck. These carcasses served a good purpose though. The big cats, lions and tigers, I was caring for loved them. They would eat everything, bones and feathers included.

It’s difficult for me to avoid concluding that these domesticated birds are the reason that the whole species gets so little respect. After all, think of how we take their name in vain. A failed show business production or hopelessly inept person is a turkey. Game hunting too easy to be worth the effort is a turkey shoot. Nonsensical speech like that of politicians is called gobbledygook.

But autumn is a season for charity and good will. Let’s thank those 50 million turkeys. They might have lacked dignity in life, but they certainly enriched our holiday on the platter.

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