I’ve been thinking a lot about turkeys lately, even more than I might normally this time of year. Because most every Thanksgiving, my partner and I have rather unceremoniously plucked our organic, free-range turkey out of the refrigerated case at Whole Foods, giving the choice about as much thought as the selection of the potatoes or the bagged cranberries.
This year, we’ve opted for a locally raised heritage turkey. I wish I could say that the decision was prompted by concern for the welfare of commercially raised birds…or the environmental ramifications of large-scale livestock production…or the carbon pollution generated by long-haul transportation. But in reality, I just want a really friggin' tasty turkey—the sort that’ll make my eyes roll back in my head for a minute.
Surely the fact that this turkey had to be ordered from a tiny little independent grocery/CSA outpost, that we had to plunk down a $50 deposit, and that we can expect to pay about triple what our last three Thanksgivings' worth of turkeys cost means that it’s just got to yield superior drumsticks, right?
Even as I prepare to shell out a lot of semi-hard-earned cash (I’m a writer, not a sandhog), I’m conscious of the potential for parody here, for the day when, “for about the cost of a cup of coffee a day,” we can “adopt” our Thanksgiving turkey from the moment he hatches. You can imagine: “You will receive this handsome framed photograph of your heritage bird and his lineage documented on acid-free, museum-quality parchment paper. Log in any time to our live Gobble Cam to watch your turkey as he experiences the joys of pastured living made possible by your generosity.”
This turn toward irony, toward lampooning my own lefty spirit of social consciousness—or whatever you call the tangle of food- and environment-based, and nebulous other something-based, concerns that intersect to create a market for pricey alternatives to your average broad-breasted Frankenbird—reminds me of a David Foster Wallace passage I read recently:
The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip-fatigue.
Among the trove of odd little “what might have been” factoids we all have collected about American history from our overzealous history teachers (God bless you, Mr. Fullerton!), the one that gets trotted out most this time of year is the fact that Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the turkey to be our national symbol, which, along with flying a kite in a lightning storm, would seem to transform this genius of a Founding Father into a doddering idiot.
But that’s only because of how we see turkeys (and bald eagles) today. It turns out, Franklin had his reasons, which he enumerated in a letter to his daughter in 1784:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good Case, but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing, he is generally poor and often very lousy.… For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.… He is besides, though a little vain & 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.
Today, turkeys are by no means upholding the mission of the revolution. Consider this funny site my editor sent me, where you design your own “unpardonable turkey,” i.e., “create a Thanksgiving turkey that everyone will want to kill and eat.” First you have to “dress him up like a total douchebag,” which includes options for things like “white guy dreadlocks,” a “Ron Paul 2016 t-shirt,” or “Crocs.” Then you pick something for your despicable turkey to say, like “9/11 was an inside job” or “Whatevs!”
The digs are sort of equal opportunity: You can deck out your turkey with a Bluetooth headset and have him say “Hate the sin, love the sinner” or, sarcastically, “Thanks Obama.” Or you can give him a “reusable hippie shopping bag” and have him say, “I only buy locally grown organic produce.”
It’s good for about five minutes of entertaining distraction, but it also seems to epitomize the “ironic watching” Wallace talks about. Would early Americans of Franklin’s generation ever come up with something like this about their own culture, a kind of rudimentary checklist passed around the pub with such Revolution-era “douchebag” sayings as “Alex Hamilton in 1800!” or “Give me liberty—or give me beer!”?
Eh, maybe they would have—Franklin, for one, had an excellent sense of humor by all accounts. But I can’t help thinking there would have been a good dose of republican (in the true sense of the word) scorn, too, heaped on the elite, perhaps those whom, for Franklin, would have been best symbolized by the “bad moral character” of the bald eagle, swooping in to steal another’s hard-earned kill. (Has anyone else seen Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue lately?)
In this sense, then, it’s worth considering the turkey as a symbol of Thanksgiving, this most American of holidays, and in particular, what we’ve done to transform the once noble bird (in Franklin’s estimation, at least) into something of a sad laughingstock. Admit it, there’s just something hysterical and absurd about those photos that appear this time of year showing the beady-eyed, wizened turkey in the Rose Garden standing awkwardly next to whatever occupant of the White House is about to “pardon” it—a “tradition,” it should be noted, that dates all the way back to the presidency of George H.W. Bush. This year, the Obama White House gamified the pardon, asking Americans to vote on which of two birds deserves a pardon. Spoiler: Despite the outcome, both will live...for now.
Because as Matt Berman and Brian Resnick at the National Journal point out, those birds may be spared the ax, but they typically end up dying within a year anyway. The writers cite a pretty grim report from the Humane Society, which details the creepy impact being bred for fast, cheap meat production has wrought on turkeys, including obesity-induced heart disease and renal failure (not to mention that they’re too fat to breed naturally and have to rely on artificial insemination).
That those presidentially pardoned birds, those gargantuan flightless beings that are the product of a voracious and relentlessly single-minded consumer culture, used to end up as the “grand marshal” of the Thanksgiving Day parade at Disneyland—well, let’s just say I’m too much of a generation schooled in “ironic watching” not to derive some cynical pleasure from that one. Or the fact that they now wind up at George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon.
And yet, I’m still holding out high hopes for my heritage bird. Have a happy (and non-ironic) Thanksgiving!