Though I love an entire holiday based on an attitude of gratitude, as a struggling vegetarian, Thanksgiving presents the Mt. Everest of food challenges. And I've recently made some very charming turkey friends, so the pressure carries extra emotional weight this year. It's one thing to spout statistics and watch gruesome food industry videos, but it is quite another to eat your friends' friends.
I'd always heard that turkeys were terribly mean birds. Many years ago, I recall watching a local newsman do a Thanksgiving fluff piece from a turkey farm where he was harassed and then attacked as he stood amongst thousands of the birds. They are not dumb and could see they had him outnumbered. He tried to laugh it off but Mr. Hairdo was scared. "No wonder we have to eat them," I thought. "They'd kill us all."
Years later, my sister-in-law MaryAnn, regaled us with a story of being terrorized by a turkey as a child. And how she celebrated the day the family ultimately ate him while her baby sister cried. She laughs about it still. These birds were something to be fear and/or eaten -- nothing more or less.
Flash forward to August 2005, and I am staying at a remote Wyoming horse ranch. The first morning, I get up early to shoot film (remember that?) in the gorgeous dawn light and am joined by Tony, the resident turkey. He was pleased that someone else was up early too and accompanied me as I wandered, pecking at the dirt, as I walked along. This little walk became our morning routine. Tony was my first turkey friend.
I should also note that when I had the Wyoming film developed at Adolph Gasser's in San Francisco, the woman behind the counter fell hard for Tony. Without even knowing my story, she requested a copy of his face since I had ordered doubles. "Um, okay," I said, "His name is Tony, actually."
She swooned: "Tony! I love his face! I'm going to put him in a frame."
Then there's Marino, the gorgeous tom I met at the Farm Sanctuary in New York. Though his face was paralyzed from abuse, he was still the handsome stoic of the barnyard. He had a lot of grace despite his ugly background. He came across to me as a real ladies man although as a refugee from the turkey industry he was bred to be so obese, if he mounted a female, he'd likely crush her. So sexy Marino must remain single for life.
My newest turkey friends -- Harley, Reese, Jordan and Peyton -- at the Farm Sanctuary California sealed the deal. Their friendly curiosity finally convinced me of one thing: Turkeys aren't naturally mean, just incredibly smart. My camera, my boots, my notebook, my knees -- they wanted to know all about me, and as a narcissist, I appreciated that. Watching them maneuver the yard with their mangled feet (food industry birds are de-toed as youngsters) with open minds and hearts, hoping to score a nice petting, I felt myself learning a lot from them.
(Check out the Farm Sanctuary's Adopt-A-Turkey Program here.)
And by now, you've no doubt heard about Ben Franklin's strong preference for America's national symbol to be the turkey not the bald eagle, right? If not, you're welcome.
"I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."
--Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his daughter, referring to the eagle's "bad moral character"
It's probably best that Ben did not get his way. It would not have helped our already-ravenous image for 300 million Americans to eat the national symbol every November in a gluttonous gorge fest. Evidently, turkey wasn't the white meat staple back then that it is today.
In fact, since 1970, turkey consumption has increased 109 percent. In that same year, 50 percent of all turkey consumed in the US was during the holidays. These days, it's 31 percent so we're gobbling it up year-round. Last year, the National Turkey Federation claims that every American ate 17 pounds of the Other Other White Meat. In 1939, it was less than three pounds per person.
We are, in fact, the top turkey consuming nation in the world -- no surprise there. Between 250 and 300 million turkeys are raised for slaughter every year in the US -- more than 46 million alone for Thanksgiving. And the average weight of turkeys purchased for Thanksgiving is 16 pounds, so approximately 736 million pounds of turkey flesh was consumed in the US during Thanksgiving 2009.
When it comes to turkey, we're stuffed.
And so are they. A wild turkey regularly roosts above ground, but industry birds are almost nothing like their wild counterparts. Raised to be huge as soon as possible, industry turkeys are superfreaks who couldn't possibly breed on their own, as poor Marino would attest. Using a human to illustrate, if a seven pound baby grew at the same rate that today’s turkey grows, on its 18th birthday that human would weigh 1,500 pounds. It's just not natural, and god knows it can't be comfortable.
Given all that knowledge and all those wonderful turkey interludes, I'm still on rocky ground under the temptations of aromas, nostalgia and cultural pressures.
Honestly? I don't know how I'll do food-wise on Thanksgiving day. As our table will include natives from New England, Mississippi and North Dakota, I can guaran-gravy-tee you that the words "tofurkey" would only be uttered in extreme jest -- for my benefit, I'm sure.
Maybe I'll just have more potatoes. Or corn. Or pie. Or maybe I'll bring along a photo of Tony to keep me honest. For him, I give thanks.
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
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