A Shocking Turkey Recipe

The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.

Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.
Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.

But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.

In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.

And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.

Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter, he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was, more or less, bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.

Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.
Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.

Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.

But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.

Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!
Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!

The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.

The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.

But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:

I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.

I'm kind of partial to the bald eagle myself.  photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc
I’m kind of partial to the bald eagle myself. photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.

Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.

7 thoughts on “A Shocking Turkey Recipe

  1. Bruce Goodman

    Wonderful! My family here in New Zealand celebrate American Thanksgiving because we briefly lived in NC. One question though about the Alton Brown brine recipe: if basting is not required, when does one refill ones glass? Cheers and happy thanksgiving!

    1. A good question, but I’m afraid I’m not sure how to advise you. I’ve never really had trouble finding an excuse to refill my wine glass. Also, I’m just curious, are turkeys widely available in New Zealand or do you celebrate with some other festive main dish? Regardless, enjoy!

      1. Bruce Goodman

        Turkeys cost the earth in the shops (around $80 for a 5.5 at Christmas). But I live in an area where wild ones (originally introduced from the States) breed like flies. At present, four independent flocks of 12/13 each come into my garden and make a mess. They’ve got babies at the moment. The rule is: kill a turkey in the months without an “R”. The reason is, they eat crickets, and the crickets taint the meat something awful. Finally, I usually put wild turkey eggs under a bantam, and get three or four fat “semi-domesticated” turkeys a year!

      2. Now I’m jealous. We have bunches, but they’re all extremely skittish. I’m married to a hunter, but he hasn’t had much luck with turkeys. Of course the ones in the stores here are considerably more affordable.

  2. Very interesting post, Sarah. I’m trying to decide whom to impress with this new body of knowledge.
    Hmm, I’m wondering how a rattlesnake could be considered for our national bird? (Well, maybe you didn’t exactly say that, Sarah, but it would play well on the evening news.) If the rattler had been chosen, I daresay it would have been tricky business displaying a viper for war bonds, get out the vote, Uncle Sam Wants YOU, or whatever.
    I doubt that old Ben considered domestic turkeys, as they are pretty stupid, and wild turkeys are smart. On the other hand, all turkeys are prone to make a mess wherever they go.
    Fortunately, many of the Founding Fathers were farmers and quite familiar with both turkeys and snakes. Otherwise, it’s likely that the rattler vs. gobbler controversy would be with us to this day.

    1. I hadn’t really considered why either the snake or the turkey would have made appropriate symbols, but now that you bring it up, seems to me like they could both work. No matter their political bent I’m pretty sure most Americans have at times felt the US government is as dangerous as a rattlesnake and/or as stupid and messy as a domesticated turkey. Eagles are handsome birds, but I kind of like the idea of celebrating that Americans are welcome to express their opinions about their government, a sentiment I suspect Franklin would have approved.

  3. Pingback: Even People With Bodies Buried In Their Basements Aren’t Perfect – thepracticalhistorian

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