I couldn’t allow Thanksgiving week to pass without talking about the noble turkey. We all know the importance of this beasty in our holiday celebrations, but the bird itself has intrigued me ever since I met my first live domesticated one 30 years ago.
Now, when you think of Penn State, you tend to imagine football, great restaurants and eye-goggling shopping. Having lived there for nearly 25 years, I bought my Thanksgiving turkey at the supermarket just like everyone else. And then I met the people who live out in Penns Valley some 25 miles east of State College.
The people who read Return of the Native would get along with those folks. That’s a good thing because a lot of them are distant cousins of ours. And they farm.
My family and I were invited to a wedding held on one of the more granola-munching farms back in the late ‘80s. As we wandered around the property, we met up with four turkeys let loose in a patch of beans to feast on bean beetles, a nice alternative to spraying insecticides with wild abandon.
You know, turkeys don’t always gobble. These, some of the happiest critters I ever met, were making a joyful bubbling sound as they munched on bugs. I don’t know why, but I fell in love with those goofy birds.
Unfortunately, the domesticated turkey is not the brightest bulb in the pack. I heard later that the turkey population on that farm fell from four to three one morning.
“Yeah, Mom ran over one of their heads with her car.”
I don’t know about you, but I wonder about a bird that can’t understand that an automobile is hazardous to its brain pan. I lost some respect for turkeys that day, but only the tame ones.
Your basic wild turkey is the smartest guy in the forest or field, according to what hunters have told me. I have to smile when I hear some aspiring turkey hunter practicing his bird-calling technique. Maybe this year he’ll get lucky, I hope.
All of which makes me think that the ancient Native Americans in Mexico got tired of coming home empty-handed and decided to domesticate the turkey. That was a good plan, because the only other meat animal domesticated in the pre-European Americas was the guinea pig.
“Oh, yes. Mother is baking pies and making stuffing in the kitchen. We’re going to have guinea pig with all the trimmings for Thanksgiving,” doesn’t set well with me for some reason.
The Spaniards tasted turkey during their numerous invasions and liked it. They took turkeys home with them, they spread far and wide and appeared for the first time on an English nobleman’s menu in 1573. In 1607, the story came full circle when turkeys were shipped to Jamestown.
If you think we have issues with fake news these days, it has always been a problem. One of those turkey-importing Englishmen mistook the American bird for another one native to Turkey. And that is how turkeys came to be called turkeys, in case you ever wondered about it.
Your average Mesoamerican native had never heard of bread stuffing, pumpkin pie or green bean casserole with Durkee’s onion rings on top. But she did know how to whip up a tasty batch of turkey mole. That is pronounced Moh-lay, not mole, by the way.
Let’s not even think about a dish of moles, okay?
Mole sauce is one of those things that shouldn’t work but does, rather like burning peanut butter to heat Army field rations. Chocolate, hot peppers, spices and turkey meat are simmered together into a thick stew. Don’t turn up your nose, because it is one of the best things you will ever eat.
While the tasty domestic turkey is dumb as a box of doorknobs, the wiliness of its wild cousin earned it the admiration of none other than Benjamin Franklin. He lobbied against making the bald eagle the national bird because “it is a bird of ill repute,” while the noble turkey fed the masses with its succulent flesh. He forgot to add that only the wealthy or those living on farms could afford to eat it.
Better husbandry made turkey more affordable for the common man in the 1940s. Nowadays, nearly everyone can eat turkey whenever he wants, making the traditional deep-fried Fourth of July turkey one of our quirkier holiday meals. I don’t know how long this trend will last, but I suspect that our descendants will think us rather odd a century from now.
I have run out of strange and amazing turkey factoids for the week, but I’m sure there are a lot more out there. Alas, it is time to start making plans for the extended Kerr clan’s feast.
Until next week, may you and yours celebrate and give thanks for our many blessings. No matter how messy the world may look, things generally turn out okay. Except for the turkey.