If you think about it, traditions are just routines writ large. And as is often the case with routines, sometimes we stick to them just because they’re what we’ve always done. Why do I always use that one elliptical at the back of the gym? Or return to that hairdresser who doesn’t totally listen to what I asked for (make me look like Tracee Ellis Ross NOW)? Since we’re a media outlet that is pretty invested in routines (morning routines, bedtime routines, travel routines), I figured it was high time we turn our critical lens toward one of our country’s most notable ones: eating a giant bird on some Thursday near the end of November.
I will abstain from making a commentary on Thanksgiving as a whole, as that topic has been covered with far more care and grace than I could give it here, nor will I endeavor to tackle the politics of meat consumption generally, but I will happily talk about Thanksgiving’s most notable symbol that is also an entrée: turkey.
I happen to be of the opinion that turkey is bad, possibly trash. My family seems to be of the opinion that it’s good. Unsure of who was right (I am right), I recently threw up a poll on Instagram asking if my friends/followers “genuinely enjoy eating turkey on Thanksgiving.” The response: 62 percent said no and 38 percent said yes. Closer than expected.
I mean, what is the deal with turkey? Have people eaten chicken before? HAM? I believe in freedom of personal taste, but much like Harling’s investigation into the decline of breakfast cereal, I have a particular journalistic itch that needs chicken-scratching. Why do people still serve turkey? Do people actually enjoy eating said turkey? And further, is “daring to dislike turkey” the new “daring to love Olive Garden” — i.e., a way to signal that one has arrived at the appropriate point on the Y-axis of disdain and the X-axis of irony?
If the first bullet point in an ill-conceived defense of eating turkey for Thanksgiving is “history,” I would point out that if we were to truly eat what was served on the first Thanksgiving, we would probably be passing around steaming plates of Venison, fighting over who gets the longer half of an eel and eating some sort of porridge. Turkey didn’t begin its long-running and successful association with Thanksgiving until the mid-19th century, right around the time Abe Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
The rise of turkey’s popularity has been attributed to a few things: the bird’s ability to feed multiple people at a lower cost than beef; the fact that turkeys can’t really do much of anything, so why not eat them; and of course, the original taste-maker, Charles Dickens, who forever linked turkeys with personal growth and holiday spirit in A Christmas Carol. But as families become smaller, food preparation easier and meat more accessible, why are Thanksgiving-celebrating Americans sticking to the big, bold, honestly kind of intimidating-looking, flightless bird known as the turkey?
Turkey is notoriously hard to make. It’s large and takes up the whole oven, requiring Thanksgiving hosts to either get a second oven or turn into mini project managers, reverse engineering the turkey/side dish/dessert oven real estate from the ideal meal start time. The baffling nature of turkey preparation is so commonplace that there’s even been a large-scale prank of the youth texting their parents about cooking turkeys in the microwave (full body shivers).
In an attempt to free up kitchen space to allow other elements of the Thanksgiving dinner to come together, some folks have taken to deep frying their turkeys, leading to double the usual house fires on Thanksgiving. Deep fried turkey injuries are so common that the New York Fire Department has its own tip sheet for how not to ruin your life and property on this special day. I personally have consumed a deep-fried turkey, and my official take is that it was a good version of a turkey and a bad version of a fried thing.
Whether stuffed, fried or roasted, there are so many steps to getting a turkey on the table (buying ahead of time, freezing, unfreezing, brining, lighting your house on fire, etc.) that it has become the main point of food-related stress at almost every Thanksgiving I’ve ever attended. Are the exertion and cost worth the payoff? What’s the exchange rate on insults muttered to tender slices of turkey?
To get to the bottom of the mystery of turkey’s enduring appeal, I reached out to a few food industry folks. First up was Saveur’s senior associate editor, Alex Testerex Testere. His take on what I’ve begun to call The Great #IsTurkeyTrash Debate was exceedingly rational: “I actually do like a roast turkey; it’s gamier than chicken and can be more flavorful and really juicy if it’s done right. But I also feel no attachment to having one on Thanksgiving. I’d say if you don’t care for turkey, make something else! If you’re the one cooking, you deserve to eat what you want. I don’t think anyone will lament the lack of turkey. But I only get pumpkin pie but once a year … so no one gets to touch that.”
Ariel Knutson, news and culture editor at Kitchn, praised the bird not for the meat itself but for the bounty it provides after the meal. “My take is that turkey is trash, but it’s necessary because turkey stock is kitchen magic. It honestly doesn’t matter how good a turkey recipe is, it’s still going to be a boring and probably dry (sorry). But I’ll make it every year for my friends and family so that I can steal the carcass and create sweet, sweet turkey stock and use it in soups for the rest of the year.” In the spirit of community and generosity, I will concede that turkey stock can be good.
Food writers are paid to make everything taste good, but what does someone who deals with just meat all of the time think? “Turkey is maybe the only animal I think about once a year and this is actually my first year cooking my own turkey. I’ve never had reason to feed that many people in my home before,” says Jesse Franklin, lead butcher at Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia. “There isn’t anything wildly special about turkey (besides its melatonin-like quality), but it’s really about what you’re going to do with it. It’s hard to do the Norman Rockwell bird right; we’ve got to think about these big birds differently from our parents. I’m braising turkey legs and making roasts of the breast and I’m honestly so excited to figure out how to use a turkey right.”
Franklin may be onto something with the counterculture turkey approach: According to this Bloomberg piece, masterfully entitled, “Millennials Are Disrupting Thanksgiving With Their Tiny Turkeys” (chef’s kiss), the popularity of six-pound birds are on the rise. The article attributes the rise in wee turkeys to millennials feeding fewer people or, more likely, realizing that 30-pound turkeys are one genetic mutation away from a Jurassic Park situation and moving onto free-range and organic options as a means of more responsible meat consumption.
Another contribution to The Great #IsTurkeyTrash Debate is the fact that turkey is cheaper now than it’s been in the past eight years. According to CBS News, “While the typical seasonal pattern is for the price of turkey to increase as the year progresses, 2018 has been different. Consumers seem to have been losing their appetite for turkey compared to other meats, and the birds have not been flying off the shelves.” While I’m surprised this hasn’t happened sooner, I’m thrilled people have come to their collective meat-eating senses. Could this be because 2018 has been, hmmm how do you say? Bad? And as the nation emotionally eats its way through troubled times, perhaps turkey sales have declined in favor of more comforting fare.
Ben Franklin once praised the turkey as “a much more respectable bird than the eagle.” And as a born-and-bred Midwesterner, let me tell you that I know a backhanded compliment when I see one (eagles are mean!). So this year, as we sit down at whatever table is home to our particular interpretation of Thanksgiving, I would encourage us all to consider the why of our many traditions, thereby freeing ourselves from cultural expectations that involve exceedingly dry meat, and enjoy whatever it is we like most. Even, I suppose, if that is turkey.
Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.