There’s a problem with Thanksgiving, and I’m not talking about its whitewashed version of colonial genocide — though that is pretty bad. I’m talking about turkey, the grotesquely wattled, genetically modified dinosaur we are expected to cook and consume for the occasion. Because as far as I can tell, nobody wants it on the table.
With all this disdain for turkey meat, you might be shocked to learn that we slaughter 267 million of the fuckers every year, including 46 million each November. Why? The turkey’s association with Thanksgiving is pretty specious to begin with; for the Plymouth Pilgrims, venison was the main attraction. It took two centuries for turkey to catch on as a centerpiece of the feast, and it did so thanks to its size, its American origins, and Alexander Hamilton hyping it. (Can’t believe Lin-Manuel left that out of the musical.)
But there’s another reason to roast turkey on Thanksgiving. In the 1860s, when Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, “turkey wasn’t so common that it didn’t seem like a suitable choice for a special occasion.” Meaning we served it because it was something we didn’t usually have for dinner. To that, the turkey-haters might reasonably reply: “Yeah, and we don’t usually empty our garbage into a pot of boiling water and call it Santa stew, but that doesn’t happen when it’s time to celebrate Christmas.” Fair enough! Yet we may consider that the unpleasant obligation of taking down an entire turkey — a process that tends to go hilariously wrong — is exactly what makes it special.
What could be more American than complaining about the marquee food on a day we are meant to give thanks for being well-fed? If we didn’t have turkey on Thanksgiving, we’d need to come up with something even drier and blander, preferably with a cavity in which we can accidentally leave a paper bag of giblets. The disappointment of those mealy turkey shreds, hacked without grace from an avian carcass by your uncle, makes the side dishes sing — the mashed potatoes more buttery, the stuffing fluffier, the green beans crisper and almost too succulent. That so much is left behind, for theoretical sandwiches you won’t really make, is a testament to our national excess. Meanwhile, our communal loathing for this fowl is a rare spot of agreement in a season known for familial arguments. We rail against turkey even though there is nobody defending it.
Oh, sure, a few people will take up the cause, arguing that a good brine brings out the juice, or that it’s simply a base for other flavors. I happen to agree, though I believe this misses the point. The anti-turkey crowd isn’t seriously lobbying for its exile from the Thanksgiving plate; they are protesting thoughtless ritual itself. Ragging on turkey is like giving the middle finger to the American flag when you’re supposed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance — a form of disrespect that is officially frowned upon, but tacitly encouraged, and which in the end affirms the very freedom for which the symbol stands.
The only alternative to eating turkeys is letting them roam free, and that doesn’t seem to work either. I myself live in a town where the wild turkeys are so aggressive that residents have been known to call 911 when cornered by one. And when it comes to the bizarre pageantry of the presidential turkey pardon, fans are hard to find. Not even Obama’s daughters could pretend to enjoy the ceremony (which doesn’t bode well for the perpetually bored Barron Trump). And among those who have yet to join the consensus that this is a deeply dumb convention, a clear majority are just hoping that Trump botches his duties somehow. Maybe he’ll challenge the birdbrains to an IQ test.
No, we are bound to keep basting and carving and chewing these things until one of our species — or the United States — goes extinct. Otherwise we’re stuck watching them strut around and gobble and act smug about not being eaten, which is arguably worse. You don’t have to like it any more than you do overpaying for an economy plane ticket or explaining your lack of a romantic life to your nosy grandmother, but it’s a defining element of Thanksgiving all the same, as is your not-so-contrarian resistance. Should you get a chance to tug on the wishbone, try hoping the gravy doesn’t run out next year.