An American Story
by Andrew F. Smith
Illinois, 264 pp., $29.95
Books about how a particular foodstuff explains our world have become a publishing staple. There are volumes on salt, cod (although not salt cod), potato, and rum, among others. Now food historian Andrew F. Smith has contributed The Turkey: An American Story. Smith wisely does not try to make the case that the turkey is the central actor in American history. Despite the seeming blandness of his topic, he has produced not a turkey-he explains that the term of opprobrium comes from unfair assumptions about turkeys' lack of intelligence-but a surprisingly palatable volume on our native fowl and how it became a symbol of America's providence (if not gluttony).
The book is stuffed (all right, I'll stop) with so much turkey information -from their natural history, to their commercial history, to their role in history-that quoting from it extensively at the Thanksgiving table could make you the Ken Jennings of the feast. Or make your fellow revelers want to shove a drumstick down your throat. Of course, Smith dismantles the myth of the first Thanksgiving. It's true that Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote a letter in 1621 describing how the governor of the colony "sent four men on fowling," after which there was a lengthy feast attended by Massasoit and his men. But it was not a day of thanksgiving as the pilgrims would have understood it, which were religious commemorations observed in church. And for the next two centuries, little was made of Winslow's celebration.
It was the two-decade campaign begun in 1846 by the writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale (author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb") that was the driving force behind this holiday. Her campaign took on particular urgency as the nation headed toward civil war; Hale hoped a national day of thanks would help prevent the union's dissolution. Undeterred by the war, Hale finally succeeded when, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of thanks. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the mythology about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims came into being, spawning a million elementary school reenactment pageants. Smith describes how this holiday-even if it rests on shaky history-has been a portal through which successive decades of immigrants have learned to celebrate their Americanness.
Smith also clarifies the story about Benjamin Franklin campaigning for the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be the national bird. The controversy was over the design of the official seal of the United States. Franklin and Thomas Jefferson came up with a depiction of Moses crossing the Red Sea. When the image of the eagle was chosen instead, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter lamenting that, as long as a bird was to become our symbol, he would have preferred the turkey, "in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America."
Turkeys and Muscovy duck were the only fowl domesticated by the native people of the Americas in pre-Columbian times. The turkey was quickly embraced by European explorers who brought the birds back with them as early as the 1520s. Turkey quickly became an important Old World food; during the Renaissance a forerunner of the turducken was served at feasts. By the 19th century, Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, enshrined turkey as the centerpiece of the Christmas meal. This transcontinental turkey traffic resulted in the most popular turkey breed in the United States in the 19th century, the American Bronze, which was a cross between domesticated turkeys brought back to America from Europe, and then mated with wild birds.
When Europeans first arrived on this continent, it was covered with wild turkeys. Smith writes that the colonists delighted that they didn't have to tend or raise these birds, but they were readily available.
"Here are likewise aboundance of Turkies often killed in the Woods, farre greater than our English Turkies, and exceeding fat, sweet, and fleshy," wrote the Massachusetts Bay Colony minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1630.
Smith says that one of the biggest admirers of our native bird was the immigrant John James Audubon, whose Birds of America opening plate is of the wild turkey. Smith quotes Audubon's wonderful descriptions of turkey courtship, with the males strutting and puffing until the female "suddenly opens her wings, throws herself towards him, as if to put a stop to his idle delay, lays herself down, and receives his dilatory caresses." Audubon also described how, when the clutch of about a dozen eggs hatched, the mother would walk along with her brood under the tender cover of her wings.
Like another abundant species, the buffalo, wild turkeys were so prodigiously hunted, and their habitat so widely destroyed, that their population began plunging almost immediately after European settlement. By the 1880s, there were predictions that the wild turkey would soon join the dodo. But 20th-century efforts have saved the wild bird, and it is now estimated that seven million turkeys roam the continental United States. (I can attest to their comeback, having seen a flock in the Maine woods this summer, and one in Washington's Rock Creek Park this fall.)
But when Smith describes the modern commercial history of the domesticated turkey, one wonders if the birds don't sometimes wish they had just disappeared. The bird that is the focus of our modern feast is a grotesque that defies the principles of natural selection. By the 1930s, in response to consumer desires, breeders began producing crosses that had mountainous flesh on their breasts. One of these new breeds was even named "Bronze Mae West." By the 1950s, these broad-breasted turkeys had become the commercial standard. But they were so out of proportion that they could barely stand, and were completely unable to mate. They exclusively reproduce through artificial insemination-although Smith does not say if the deed is done with a turkey baster. The image of these creatures seems like a warning to Americans who consume them; does that fate await us if we get ever more corpulent?
Smith vividly describes the short, unhappy life of the commercial bird. Within days of hatching it is debeaked, desnooded, and de-toed-to curb their ability to injure each other under conditions of "intense confinement." The birds are raised in groups of up to 10,000 in windowless barns that are constantly lit to encourage the birds to eat. About four months later, Smith writes, they are "shackled upside down on an assembly line; then the turkeys are stunned by submerging their heads and necks in a bath of electrified water."
You can only read this chapter with the thought that maybe this is the year to try Tofurkey. But the trends are not going the turkeys' way. In 1970, per capita turkey consumption was 8.1 pounds; by 2004 it was 17.4. And by the end of the evening this November 23rd, many of us will feel that we have eaten our annual allotment in a single meal.
Emily Yoffe is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.