Consider the turkey
December 13, 2012By Pamela J. Forsythe
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
Has any other member of the animal kingdom experienced as dramatic a fall? Almost 250 years ago, the turkey was in the running to be America's official bird, a prize ultimately seized by the eagle. That mighty creature went on to decorate currency and courthouses, becoming as much an icon as the Statue of Liberty or purple mountains majesty.
The turkey's place in American symbolism is more like that of the hot dog, an edible emblem. Instead of clamoring to protect turkeys, we behead them, pluck their feathers, bag their giblets, tie their legs, and stick them in ovens or immerse them in vats of boiling oil. Do any of this to an eagle, and people from the National Wildlife Federation will arrive at your doorstep with burning torches. From Thanksgiving to New Year's, however, find four or more Americans around a table and a glistening roast turkey is bound to be somewhere in the vicinity.
In fall, thoughts turn obsessively to Tom Turkey: How big should he be? Fresh or frozen? How to prepare him? For how long? Stuffed or unstuffed? Operators stand by to offer emergency advice to inexperienced cooks. In many families, critical instructions are written down and shared, and specific turkey tasks are assigned. Those hosting their first holiday dinner consult cooking programs, poultry websites, even relatives they detest, if those relations are proficient in turkey cookery. No one wants to fail at Thanksgiving or any holiday dinner, because the embarrassment will become part of family lore and recited every year, forever.
Carnivores who do not like turkey still serve it, perhaps with a ham on standby. On some tables, preferred meats are concealed inside the turkey, an invention that gave rise to the turducken, a name that makes turkey sound elegant. My father resorted to none of this subterfuge. Though he did not care for turkey, he ate it on Thanksgiving, avoided leftovers, and quietly counted the years until our family was small enough to celebrate in a restaurant, at which time he grinned and ordered roast beef.
Dad had never been more thankful.
Even non-meat eaters can't completely turn their backs on the holiday turkey, christening their bean curd-based main dish tofurkey. Like turducken, it must taste better than it sounds.
Avoid him, tolerate him, or love him, the turkey deserves our gratitude more than any other avian as the old year winds down. Not only has Tom nourished generations of Americans, he has somehow retained his dignity despite millions of cartoonish depictions featuring bug eyes, drooping wattles, and spindly knock-kneed legs. What does the eagle do that compares? Stand imperiously on a mountaintop, beady eyes squinting toward the horizon? Clutch armaments in his talons? Predatorily swoop down on unsuspecting small game?
The turkey may not be the most handsome bird, but he is loyal and delicious, unselfishly surrendering himself to holiday feasts and ever more convoluted preparations. While Tom might wish that more of us would learn to love tofu, we can at least include him on the thank you list. As the centerpiece of a meal that brings together families and friends, crosses cultures, and reminds us to be grateful, the turkey is more than a mail course. Though not America's official bird, he is the one that helps us remember who we are and what really matters. Let the eagle glare at us from the dollar, the turkey has engraved himself on our hearts.