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AgriCulture: Talkin’ Turkey

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Mark writes.

Rural Intelligence FoodIt is that time of year when major transitions take place at the farm. We have been harvesting vegetables all summer but now it is time for the major fall harvest of the meat chickens, ramlings, geese, ducks, and, yes, our amazing heritage breed, pasture-raised turkeys. They will cease being a major attraction of the barnyard and will become… well, turkeys, ready to brine, roast, and heartily consume at that most American of holiday rituals, the Thanksgiving feast. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this feast lately, and not only because our recent four-week holiday from the farm meant that we’ve been laggard about promotion this year and still have birds to sell. No, my thoughts have turned more to the contrast between the way we present the turkey at the Thanksgiving feast, where it arrives at the table as a recognizable bird in all its birdness, and the many ways in which we try to disassociate most of the other meats we eat from the living animals that are their source.

Think about it. Starting from the descriptive terms we use, we try to mask the source of most of the meats we eat. We do not eat “cow” or “calf.”  Instead we dine on “beef” or “veal.” Nor do we eat “pigs.” It is “pork” that arrives on our tables. “Sheep”?  Never tasted them, it’s “mutton” instead.  Where mammals are concerned, our language suggests that we are eating something other than the actual animal when we fork into a serving of meat.

In the same way as we mask linguistically, we mask in presentation. To present a meal in a way that reminds us of the actual animal it comes from would strike most contemporary Americans as strange, and perhaps even distasteful. Putting a whole cow’s head or pig’s head on the table for decoration would seem Victorian or pre-Victorian in character and would strike many of us as gross.

This is not just a matter of the size of the animal either. I’ve encountered quite a few people who are freaked out by eating fish as anything but a skinless, headless fillet or an even more processed fish stick. Offer a grilled whole fish on a platter with its head and tail still on and a significant number of people will refuse it. They might like the taste of the fish’s flesh, but cannot abide looking at it in its complete form.

To be sure, there are exceptions to this linguistic and visual masking. We use the same term, “lamb,” for young sheep, whether it is on the hoof or on the plate. Peter thinks this is perhaps because, in the past, lambs were cooked whole and presented as such, as they still do in rural Turkey. When we spit roast a whole suckling piglet, as Peter and I did this last weekend (on a spit on the fireplace), we typically refer to it as “pig” and present it as a whole animal, intact, head and all, making the source of the meat quite unmistakable. And, I might add, it was delicious, even if I made a mess of carving it.

But I sense we are in a minority these days. Few people prepare suckling pig, and I suspect that for every one of us who finds the presentation appetizing there are three or four squeamish carnivores who could not bear to both view the complete roast piglet and eat it.

Rural Intelligence FoodAnd yet, in a world in which we seem increasingly to want to pretend that our meats do not come from animals, virtually everyone views the presentation of the turkey in its virtually intact form on the Thanksgiving table as an imperative. Look at the promotions for Thanksgiving dinners, and you will see almost universally a picture of the entire body of the turkey, on its back, golden browned breasts (i.e. white meat) up and legs (i.e. drumsticks) in the air. Vegetarians who eat tofu or pumpkins in place of turkey as their main course on Thanksgiving have even been known to present their centerpiece in the shape of a turkey.

Why such a ready acceptance of the turkey presented intact on the Thanksgiving table? One factor may certainly be the ritual nature of this harvest celebration meal, which dates back even beyond the American colonial period to sixteenth century Europe. The very nature of a ritual is that it is something repeated as it always has been. Our traditional presentation of the turkey may be, in part, a historical survival from a time when reminding us of the animal source of our food was considered highly desirable and in good taste.

Rural Intelligence FoodBut another factor may be that at Thanksgiving we celebrate our American character, and that we think of the turkey, in its living state, as exemplifying some of the better aspects of that character. In a famous letter to his daughter in 1784, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the choice of the bald eagle as a national symbol, complaining that eagles were lazy and cowardly, and subject to being chased away by birds as small as sparrows. They scavenge as much as capture their own prey. He noted that the images of eagles depicted on coins looked a lot like turkeys, and opined that the turkey would have been a better choice as our symbol because it was also native to America but far braver than the eagle. The turkey, he noted, would even attack a British grenadier. This courage was confirmed for me by the breeding Naragansett tom we kept several years ago until he made life just too miserable by relentlessly attacking us whenever we approached.

To the turkey’s quality of courage I would add a good natured inquisitiveness as well as a wily sort of intelligence. And then, perhaps the most American of all characteristics, the sort of open friendliness we have long valued as a society.  Yes, the birds can be comical at times, but these other turkey characteristics, considered in conjunction with their courage, do indeed make them wonderful representatives of the American character we celebrate when we celebrate Thanksgiving. And since this holiday is not just a harvest festival but also a celebration of what we are as a people, it is indeed appropriate to remind ourselves of the turkey as a bird by presenting it in its recognizable form on our tables.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 11/13/12 at 09:02 AM • Permalink

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