Slipping in Unicorn Puke

In the early part of the fourth century BC, a historian by the name of Ctesias returned to his native Greece after traveling through India and Persia, where he served a number of years as physician to the royal court. When he got home, he set to work writing about his travels in his great works Persica, which like many of the era’s works of history is somewhat dubious in nature, and Indica, which among other things, describes India’s native unicorn.

The unicorn, he wrote, was as large as a horse, with blue eyes, a red head, a white body, and a horn on its head measuring at least a foot and a half. It was also very strong and lightning fast.

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For a while rumor had it only a young virgin could successfully catch a unicorn because the creatures were attracted to purity. By Domenichino – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ctesias offers us the first written account of this elusive animal, but he certainly wasn’t the only “scholar” to write about it. Among those who mention the beast are Pliny the Elder, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Marco Polo. The unicorn even gets a nod in some translations of the Bible (I’m pretty sure the LSD translation is on the list).

Of course none of these writings seem to be eye-witness accounts, and the descriptions vary (some may more closely resemble a rhinoceros, which definitely is real), but for a good part of human history, there was little doubt of the unicorn’s existence. Its horn has been pulverized to make an antidote for poisons, it’s been used as a religious symbol of purity, and it’s even graced symbols of state.

Today’s unicorn is a little sleeker, a little sparklier, and a little more make-believe (though I hear Animal Planet is planning a show called Hunting Unicorns, which will air just as soon as they find Bigfoot). The unicorn of today also seems to have a hard time holding on to its lunch (which I have to assume is made up primarily of Skittles) because the creatures are frequently depicted puking rainbows.

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Yep. This sure makes me thirsty for something with sugar and sparkles.

I have to wonder if that’s what Starbucks was hoping to call to mind when they introduced their Unicorn Frappuccino last week. The multi-colored sugar bomb lasted only five days, and was even sold out at many stores faster than that, proving as difficult to catch as the unicorn itself.

I’m certainly not complaining. As a more or less non-coffee drinker, I have one Starbucks order I’ve convinced myself I enjoy when I occasionally have to meet up there, and the Unicorn Frappuccino isn’t it. But if they were still making them, then for the purpose of thorough research I suppose I would have gotten one just to take a picture. I might even have tried a sip so as to not anger the barista who just spent the last hour making 437 of them and is starting to take on a strange pink and blue hue.

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Since I didn’t get the drink you’ll just have to use your imagination. Picture this in a cup topped with whipped cream and pink and blue sprinkles.

So I didn’t catch a unicorn myself, but for a few days there I sure did hear a lot of rumors of their existence. I see from the Internet buzz that some Starbucks stores are now offering a Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea and magic and probably also a lot of sugar. I think I’ll pass on that one as well, but perhaps you’d like to try it.

If you tried the Unicorn Frappuccino, I’m curious, what did you think? Should Starbucks bring it back and make it a permanent offering, or did it make you puke rainbows like a unicorn?

 

Forget the Bunny: A Case for the Easter Fox

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, it’s probably time we talk about rabbits. I have a complicated relationship with these admittedly adorable creatures. My first favorite stuffed animal was a floppy-eared bunny I received at Easter. My youngest son, too, has a stuffed bunny that is near and dear to his heart, enough so that when he was younger, there were many nights of frantic searching for “Bunny,” who always managed to disappear at bedtime leaving behind one inconsolable little boy.

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Just look at that twitchy nose. He’s up to something. photo credit: emraps my kid’s face via photopin (license)

And then there’s the Easter Bunny, one of a very few species of mammals to lay eggs, and the only one known to lay eggs filled with candy. This creature is also commonly classified as a rarely seen and likely nonexistent animal (like Big Foot), a creeper sent to spy on naughty children (like the elf on the shelf), or a guy in a scary costume that makes small children cry in the middle of the mall commons (like our favorite jolly fat man).

But where does this strange critter come from? The answer to that may be as hard to find as a favorite stuffed bunny at bedtime (make sure you check outside in the wet grass next to the play set). There are references to the Easter Bunny as early as the 16th century in Germany where it seems likely the tradition was born.  

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The only bunny I’ve ever liked.

And speculation that rabbits and hares became linked to the holiday because they are the animals most closely associated with the pagan goddess Ostara, traces its roots back to the connection of the goddess with the Christian holiday. That connection was first postulated by the 8th century monk and (practical) historian known as the Venerable Bede, who a lot of scholars now think probably just kind of made it up.

That didn’t stop Jacob Grimm (of fairytale-telling fame) from spreading the rumor in 1835, nor does it slow the annual onslaught of internet claims that Easter is little more than the Christian commandeering of yet another pagan holiday (which, even according to quite a few pagan scholars, it’s not).

But that still doesn’t explain why a bunny brings a basket of eggs, a common symbol of fertility and new life, to hide for the kiddos on Easter. All we really know is that the tradition seems to come out of German Lutheranism in various forms, all involving the hiding of colored eggs by an animal. The species of the egg-bearer varied by region, showing up sometimes as a rabbit, but in other places as a rooster, a cuckoo, a stork, or a fox. Eventually the rabbit won the day. By the time German immigrants began arriving in large numbers in America in the 1700s, they brought the Easter Bunny with them.

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Well, I’m fond of this one, too. Now that my son is getting older, it doesn’t hippity hop through my yard much anymore, but I didn’t really mind. Except at bedtime.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have a complicated relationship with bunnies. On the one hand, they are adorable.  And on the other hand, I hate them. Because while the Easter Bunny brings candy, plain ol’ bunnies hippity hop through my neighborhood with impunity.

These monstrous little nose-wigglers descend every spring to destroy my carrot, beet, and lettuce crops, decimate my blueberry bushes, and even nibble the life out of the new little tree shoots that have done nothing to deserve this harsh treatment. The demons dig ankle-spraining holes in my yard (never once having the decency to leave a candy-filled egg inside) and relentlessly taunt my dog who is well-intentioned, but too slow to catch them.

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My poor dog would like to add another argument against the Easter Bunny.

So here’s my proposal. Let’s go back to the Easter Fox. Foxes are shy enough you rarely see them. They’re also kind of cute, but much easier to say no to when your son begs for one as a pet, and they will pretty much leave your beet crop untouched. Also, in the wild, though foxes do not lay eggs (and neither do bunnies, in case you weren’t clear on that), they do tend to steal and occasionally hide them. Also (and I think it’s safe to say this is the most important point) adopting the fox as the official mascot of Easter would effectively put an end to all this “Hoppy Easter” nonsense.

So it just makes sense. Or at least it makes as much sense as the Easter Bunny.

A Fine Specimen of a Novel Except for not Having a Head

On September 10, 1945, a farmer by the name of Lloyd Olsen was expecting his mother-in-law for a visit and so he set about doing the unsavory work of killing a chicken for dinner. He scooped up a young rooster scratching and pecking its way through the barnyard and dealt the fatal blow.

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Mike the Miracle Chicken posing with his head. Photo via http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org

Except that it wasn’t. The rooster staggered like any freshly killed chicken might, but unlike most, this one never stopped. Astonished, Lloyd decided not to serve the determined bird for dinner that night and the next morning found it sleeping soundly with its phantom head tucked under its wing.

The farmer knew at that point he had a genuine oddity on his hands. With an eyedropper he managed to feed his headless wonder chicken, whom he named Mike, a mix of grain and water. Soon, the Olsens and Mike were headed out on tour across the country, delighting sideshow crowds with what Lloyd referred to as “a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head.”

A group of skeptical headless chicken experts at the University of Utah agreed with him. It seems when Lloyd lopped off Mike’s head, the farmer somehow managed to miss the jugular vein and a very lucky clot kept Mike from bleeding out. With most of his brain stem still attached (though the larger part of his head would soon reside in a jar), Mike was still a remarkably healthy rooster. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the average chicken farmer,  but it turns out chickens (which have bird brains to begin with) don’t actually need great deal of brain power to get by.

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You might be surprised at how little is going on in there. Or then maybe you wouldn’t be. photo credit: Cock a Doodle #%& via photopin (license)

Mike lived quite happily, raking in a tidy little sum for the Olsens (his would-be murderers), until he finally managed to choke to death eighteen months later in a motel in the middle of Arizona. But don’t be sad, because Mike’s determined spirit remains alive and well in his hometown of Fruita, California where every year on the first weekend in June, they celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival.

That’s right. This very weekend (since I’m sure you don’t have better things to do), you can hop over to Fruita and run a 5K or participate in a disc golf tournament. If you have a prize chicken of your own (headless or not), you can enter it into a poultry show, or you can try your hand at rooster calling, chicken dancing, or peep eating.

Because people will celebrate pretty much anything.

For example, just a few of the quirky celebrations you could attend in the United States this summer include: the Mosquito Festival in Clute, Texas, the Humongous Fungus Festival in Crystal Falls, Michigan, and the Road-Kill Cook off Festival in Marlinton, West Virginia.

I think that’s great. It’s all in good fun, and I do love a good quirky celebration (except for maybe that last one). And in fact, I’m doing a little celebrating of my own. If you visit this blog often, you may have noticed, it looks a little different since the last post. More changes are coming in the near future, but for now, I am using a moderately fancier theme, and if you look to the top, there is a new page as well: “Coming Soon! A Book!”

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A book galley. Without a head.

I am delighted to announce that this fall (maybe as early as October), I will finally become a traditionally published novelist, a goal I’ve been working toward for a very long time.

I hope you’ll take a moment to click on the new page, celebrate with me, and maybe even sign up to receive an occasional e-mail about the progress of the project and some other fun stuff. I won’t be holding a mosquito calling contest (which just sounds like a bad idea) or crowning anyone “Miss Roadkill” (or “Miss Practical Historian” because that tiara is all mine). But I will be letting readers in on some exclusive content that I’m sure you’d hate missing out on even more than you’d hate missing the opportunity to don your mask and snorkel to attend the Underwater Music Festival in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The book, a historical novel, has no official title yet, because my publisher and I haven’t yet agreed on the perfect fit, and it has no cover yet because the brilliant graphic designer I’m working with is patiently awaiting a title so he can finish his lovely design. But I assure you that what I do have is a fine specimen of a novel except for not having a head.

While the truth of the existence of Mike the Headless Chicken has occasionally been called into question, despite the testimony of several of Utah’s finest headless chicken experts, I assure you, the book really is coming soon. And headless or not, I think  it’s worth celebrating.

A Nation So Blessed, Our Dogs Have Love Handles

If you read this blog very often, or if you’ve read the “About This Blog” page, then you know, I don’t do politics in this space. I only rarely even skirt the edge of controversy, because there should be some places on the Internet where you can just have fun and not be offensive or offended, and we all have different opinions, different experiences, and different perspectives.

That being said, in life, I do politics. This has been a weird political season in the US, and a stressful week. No matter what end of the political spectrum you find yourself on most of the time, I think we can all agree that the future looks a little frightening.

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Nothing but nincompoops and megalomaniacs from where I’m sitting. photo credit: hillary clinton ice-picking donald trump : ishootwindows, cliff’s variety, castro, san francisco (2015) via photopin (license)

Because we are very close to declaring that our two frontrunner candidates for President of the United States are:

1.       A woman who is at best an blithering nincompoop who can’t figure out how to use her cell phone and thinks one wipes a server with the swipe of a cloth, or who is at worst a traitor guilty of granting political influence by foreign heads of state in exchange for lucrative speaking engagements.

2.       A man who is at best an incompetent businessman whose ventures have only been highly  successful in the area of declaring bankruptcy and screwing over investors and who has now managed to insult (probably literally) every person on earth, or who is at worst a narcissistic fascist megalomaniac.

I have a lot to say on this topic, but I will spare you. I could use a break, and I’d rather write about my dog. First, I should explain how I feel about dogs in general. I think they smell funny. And they slobber a lot. They bark when they shouldn’t. And they are incredibly needy.

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Chubby dog basking in the sunlight, just hoping I’ll shut down the computer and take him for a much needed walk.

 

Despite the fact that I would not have considered myself a “dog person,” a couple years ago my family adopted a little black puppy we named Ozzie. That alone is a great story, for another time. What’s important to know now is that I love my dog.

I’m pretty sure that the Ancient Egyptian owner of Abuwtiyuw felt the same about his furry companion, who lived sometime during the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 BC) and was buried near the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Discovered in 1935 by Egyptologist George Reisner, a tablet that was part of the repurposed material used to build a different tomb, gives detailed instructions about the elaborate burial of a dog. There’s no picture of the dog, but he is described as a tesem, a breed similar to a greyhound or saluki, but with pointier ears. And what’s really cool about it, is that even though the tomb and mummy of the dog remain undiscovered, Abuwtiyuw is the earliest domesticated dog whose name we know.

Because his owner (a pharaoh whose name remains unknown) loved him enough to want to make sure he was taken care of. That’s what good pet owners do. Even if we don’t expect to love them, the little monsters worm their ways into our hearts and we take good care of them, because they take good care of us.

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Ozzie, striking his most presidential pose.

 

So earlier this week, I took good care of Ozzie by taking him for his annual checkup and vaccinations. The good news is he’s a very healthy two-year-old dog. The bad news is he’s gotten a little chunky over the winter.

The vet’s exact words were, “He’s got some love handles.” So as the weather warms up this spring, we will be extra diligent in making sure Ozzie gets plenty of exercise so he can remain a happy, healthy dog.

That’s what I was thinking as my chubby pet and I waddled away from the vet’s office. And then I found myself reflecting on how amazing it is that I live in a nation where I am so absolutely blessed that not only can I provide my dog with regular medical care (a luxury many people throughout the world can’t even provide for their children), but he also eats so well that he’s overweight. Someday when he dies, I bet I could even provide a funeral for him in a swanky pet cemetery (though I probably won’t).

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He even kisses babies. Or at least he takes food from them. And now I think I’m beginning to see the problem.

 

So come this November, I may have to decide whether I can vote for a person I might not trust to walk my overweight dog. But for now, I’m going to focus on the fact that I live in a nation so blessed, our dogs have love handles.

I’m still not a dog person. In fact, one thing I can say with a fair amount of certainty is that your dog smells funny, slobbers a lot, barks when he shouldn’t, and is incredibly needy. Ozzie, on the other hand, is all of that, but also happens to be a fuzzy, warm, loving (and maybe just a little chubby) bundle of awesome.

Maybe I’ll vote for him for president.

Hi ho! The Fourth and Final Voyage of Kermit the Frog

Christopher Columbus, famed explorer who kind of resembles Fozzie Bear. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On September 18, 1502, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World (which he still stubbornly insisted was Asia, because by then he was becoming a little floopy) Christopher Columbus arrived in what would come to be known as Costa Rica. I say “arrived” because “discovered” is certainly the wrong word, as he was warmly greeted by canoes full of Carib Indians, representing one of four indigenous tribes living in the area at the time.

In fact, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dating back at least 10,000 years. A large variety of tools, weapons, metal work, and even remnants of an ancient city complete with aqueducts indicate that many cultures may have come, gone, and coexisted through the area.

By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This tree frog from Costa Rica resembles Kermit the Frog when the pollen count is really high. By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But its rich history of human diversity isn’t all that makes the country so fascinating, because representing just one third of one percent of Earth’s landmass, Costa Rica contains approximately four percent of the species that exist on the entire planet. It boasts the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world, with hundreds of species that, outside of captivity, can only be found there.

And Costa Rica is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 species of amphibians. Eighty-five percent of those are frogs. It’s got the poison dart frogs, the famous red-eyed tree frog, the giant toad, and the rainforest rocket frog, which at a length of about half and inch is not the smallest frog in the world, but it does have the coolest name.

And now there’s one more frog in Costa Rica, because recently researcher Brian Kubicki found a previously undiscovered glass frog he named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. Like in so much of the world, Costa Rican species are being stressed by rapid environmental change and the country has already lost many frog species to extinction. So to discover a new one is pretty exciting.

photo credit: Kermit the Frog - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)
Hyalinobatrachium dianae, a newly identified species of glass frog. Oh, wait, no that’s a Muppet. photo credit: Kermit the Frog – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)

Especially when the Internet decides that new species looks like Kermit the Frog. And it does, kind of, at least in the same way that if you put a domestic pig in a blonde wig and taught it karate, it would totally resemble Miss Piggy.

The new frog does have similar coloring to Kermit, except on its belly where its skin is nearly transparent so you can see all of its internal organs. It also has big white eyes that bug out of its head, and like its Muppet counterpart, H. dianae plays the banjo and harbors a not-so-secret wish to make it big in showbiz.

So the only real question remaining is what is Kermit the Frog doing in Costa Rica? Because as everyone who has seen the straight-to-video classic Kermit’s Swamp Years knows (and judging by the reviews that could be as many as a dozen people or more), Kermit is originally from the swamps of the Deep South, not Costa Rica.

The answer to the question may lie in the years he spent as a hard-hitting investigative journalist at Sesame Street News. As something of a hard-hitting investigative journalist myself, I have uncovered footage from Kermit’s past that may explain the link between the famous Muppet and this new little glass frog now taking the Internet by storm, a link drawn straight through the famous explorer Christopher Columbus who accidentally stumbled onto Costa Rica so many years ago. Enjoy!

Your Favorite Dinosaur and the Lie Your Science Teachers May Not Have Told You After All.

In 1870, renowned paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope published a description of a newly discovered giant plesiosaur (an extinct aquatic reptile that a reader less informed than you might mistakenly refer to as a dinosaur). Unfortunately, he’d failed to place the head on the right part of the body, sticking the skull to the end of the creature’s long tail.

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Othniel Charles Marsh, respected paleontologist, winner of the bone war, and maybe kind of behaved like a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Surely after a while, Cope would have figured out his mistake, but he didn’t manage to do so before renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (the judgment of whose parents I have to question because they named their kid “Othniel”) gleefully pointed out the mistake for the world to see. The two men weren’t on great terms to begin with, as rumors circulated that Marsh had once paid Cope’s field crew to send anything they found to Marsh instead.

Once insult was added to injury, the great Bone Wars began, with two of the most prominent paleontologists in North America behaving like squabbling children. The rivalry raged for twenty years resulting in great advances in the field, which before this period had discovered only eighteen dinosaur species on the continent. Between the two men, they described and named over 130 new species of dinosaur.

But as beneficial as it may have been, this feverish pace of scientific discovery had some drawbacks, too. The paleontologists’ dig teams were known to spy on each other, steal fossils from one another, vandalize one another’s dig sites, or even dynamite their own to keep anyone else from digging there. And then there were the mistakes of the men themselves that occasionally found their way into work that was rushed to publication.

Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe behaved like a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marsh “won” the bone wars, discovering about eighty North American dinosaurs to Cope’s fifty between the years of 1870 and 1890, but had the two men lived so long, Cope might have gotten the last laugh. In 1877, Marsh described a long-necked herbivorous dinosaur he called Apatosaurus. Just two years later, he unearthed another long-necked dino he called Brontosaurus. Trouble is that in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs determined Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were really the same species. I imagine Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Because life isn’t fair, and sometimes parents decide to name their son Othniel, the earlier name had precedent. And so, since the year 1903, there has been no such thing as a brontosaurus. No friendly leaf-eating, lumbering, earth-shaking, and, let’s face it, small-brained brontosaurs. And despite what you may have learned from the Flintstones, no brontosaurus burgers or brontosaurus ribs either.

Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head at the Carnegie Natural Museum of Natural History. By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head.
By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
How can this be? I know, I know, because when I attended elementary school in the 1980’s, Brontosaurus featured prominently in my science books. And the name was featured in museums up until the 1970’s, when paleontologists discovered the head Marsh had placed on his original “Brontosaurus” actually belonged to yet another species. And again, Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Even the US postal service got itself into a heap of trouble when as recently as 1989 it issued a series of stamps featuring popular dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pteranodon, and Brontosaurus. To be fair, though, the USPS was probably using an elementary school science textbook as a reference.

So why did the name persist for so long? Well, according to Matt Lamanna, paleontologist and curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Brontosaurus is just a really cool name. It means “thunder lizard,” evoking the ominous thumping and quaking at the creature’s approach. In contrast, Apatosaur means “deceptive lizard,” which I guess evokes the desire for the creature to pose as a different species so it can go by a cooler name.

Personally, I miss the brontosaurus. Or at least I did. Because earlier this week a team of researchers from the Nova University of Lisbon in Portugal revealed that a comprehensive comparative analysis of dino bones has led them to the undeniable conclusion that Brontosaurus was a separate species after all.

Real or not, the "thunder lizard" has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)
Real or not, the “thunder lizard” has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)

So break out the old text books, reissue the dino stamps, and grill up some stoneage burgers, because the Thunder Lizard is back. I guess Cope didn’t get the last laugh after all. Smiling in Heaven now, the indisputable victor of the bone wars is O.C. Marsh, which is how he’s most often referred to in the literature, because it’s a much cooler name than Othniel.

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.