Let’s Talk Turkey

In 1535, Spanish colonialist and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés published his General and Natural History of the Indies in which he described for the old world some of the elements of the new, including hammocks, pineapples, and turkeys.

Though the turkey had already been imported to Europe by this time and had been greeted with enthusiasm by farmers who found that they were kind of delicious and got to work domesticating them, Oviedo’s work offers the earliest really good description of the bird that graces most US Thanksgiving tables.

By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227219

But Europeans were far from the first to domesticate the wild turkey. More than two thousand years ago, the early people of Mexico could lay claim to that. Turkeys have long been an important part of most Native American cultures. Heavily featured in folklore, turkeys provided feathers for ceremonial headdresses, acted as insect control, and became a reliable food source when larger game proved more elusive. And in case you wanted to give one a try this Thanksgiving, the internet includes plenty of turkey recipes out of Mexico that claim to span millennia.

Anthropological research from the last few years suggests Native Americans in what would become the southeastern US were also domesticating this most thankful of birds as early as 1200 AD. So, when Europeans started to do it, it wasn’t exactly a big deal.

It was, however, a pretty good idea because turkeys can be a challenge to hunt. They are incredibly skittish and can be difficult to lure in with calls, despite the fact that manufactured calls are better than they’ve ever been. And according to a lot of turkey hunters, it’s getting harder every year.

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) strutting at Deer Island Open Space Preserve near Novato, Marin County, California

Part of the explanation for this is that in the early twentieth century, wild turkeys in North America were nearly extinct. They were facing increased habitat pressure and had been severely over-hunted. The fact that the population is flourishing today is a triumph of intense wildlife management, but also of the process of natural selection which obviously favored the birds that were too careful to get themselves successfully hunted.

As a person who has no particular desire to go turkey hunting, this doesn’t much bother me. But I do have friends and loved ones who enjoy the sport, or at least they are pretty sure they would if they could find success. Personally, I’m perfectly content to buy a domestic bird from the freezer section of my grocery store. Even if I have trouble finding the exact size I want, I have never failed to bag a turkey at the grocery store.

That is until this week.

If you read my post last week, you know that my family and I have been quarantined since my youngest son tested positive for Covid. He’s fully recovered and at this point none of the rest of us have developed symptoms, but the timing of our quarantine caused a problem.

Thanksgiving is saved!

With Thanksgiving coming up next week, we are really close to the time when we’d have to remove our frozen turkey to the refrigerator to begin thawing. Trouble is, though we did have plenty of toilet paper on hand, we didn’t yet have our frozen bird when we went into lockdown.

We do live in an area where it’s easy to get grocery delivery, but when my husband and I started thinking about a stranger picking out our Thanksgiving turkey for us, we hesitated. We realize this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you’re looking for a precise size, this close to Thanksgiving, sometimes the perfect turkey can prove a little elusive. And we didn’t want our delivery person to substitute seven Cornish game hens and some AA batteries when they couldn’t find the bird we wanted.

A smell this delicious transfers over Zoom I bet. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

It seems even domesticated turkey hunting can be a little tricky.

Fortunately, a hero emerged to rescue us from our predicament. My wonderful sister-in-law who lives a little more than an hour away from us, drove to our house to drop the perfect frozen bird on our doorstep. It should thaw in plenty of time for our favorite turkey recipe that doesn’t span millennia, but is still awfully good.

Barring any additional illness in the household, we should emerge from quarantine in time to hunt for all our own side dish ingredients, too. We have much to be thankful for this year!

I will be eating turkey next Thursday with my family, some live and most virtually, so I won’t be posting in this space. If you celebrate American Thanksgiving, I wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday! If you don’t, then I wish you a very thankful Thursday!

A Shocking Rerun

In October of 1951, the beloved sit com I love Lucy aired for the first time and, according to the most extensive research I could accomplish in five minutes, became the first television show to air as reruns. Now nearly seventy years later, you can still probably catch them from time to time. And that’s good, because even a little dated, they’re still pretty funny.lucy

So to show my appreciation for the innovative thinking of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and maybe also a little because it’s still November and I am not yet finished with my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal, I am going to participate in the noble tradition of the rerun.

Originally posted on November 20, 2013, this is my favorite practical history post about Thanksgiving. A fair number of readers have discovered this little corner of the blogosphere over the last four years, so for many of you this will be brand new old material. And those who have read and possibly vaguely remember it, will hopefully still enjoy a chuckle or two. Just no spoilers!

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
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.

lightning experiment
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.

Proposedseal
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.

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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.

 

I hope you enjoyed this encore performance! Since next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the US, I will be engaging in another grand tradition borrowed from the television industry and preempting my blog post for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See you just in time for the December sweeps! That’s a thing, right?

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.