BOOK REVIEW: More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality

More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality

Poultry welfare expert Karen Davis challenges readers to rethink the Thanksgiving turkey: “Why do we hate this celebrated bird? Why do we celebrate this hated bird?” she challenges. Indeed, it’s not enough to merely slaughter 48 million turkeys for our yearly ritual, we also feel the need to mock the birds and anyone who doesn’t partake in their flesh.

In More than a Meal, we learn our ancestors could be just as cruel to farmed animals as we currently are:

To become white flesh, animals were often suspended head down from the kitchen ceiling. This is how calves became veal prior to the adoption of the veal crate in the 20th century.

And in some cases, they could have more humanity:

A turn-of-the-century manual suggested that birds shipped to market by rail should be placed in coops “high enough to permit the fowls to stand erect…and give comfort to the occupants of the coop.”…Today, the nine billion birds being shipped to slaughter each year in the United States receive no such consideration of their comfort.

The crippling genetics of today’s ever-suffering, factory-farmed turkeys are discussed at length, as well as the attributes of the North American wild turkeys to whom they trace their heritage.

Wild turkeys, too, have their own share of problems, being a favorite “game” bird of sport hunters. Davis writes of the great degree of manipulation that has gone into stocking wild turkeys for hunting season, including in some cases the release of game farm-bred hybrid birds to provide plenty of “targets.”

As with most sport hunting, there is the element of the sexual in wild turkey shooting.

Turkey hunters brag about the erotic pleasure they get from mimicking turkey courtship behavior, imitating a “hot hen” so that a lovesick tom will “offer its head and neck for a shot.”

There’s also the element of sadism. Apparently there is also a turkey version of the infamous live pigeon shoots:

Sponsored by the Lone Pine Sportsmen’s Club…the event was a live turkey shoot in which approximately one hundred leg-bound turkey hens were shot at for recreation.

The Presidential “pardon” of a live turkey is analyzed in depth, showing us just what short memories we have as Americans. Although the turkey industry has traditionally presented the President with a live turkey intended for the White House Thanksgiving banquet, the media-driven turkey “pardon” is a different animal altogether. Far from being a time-honored ritual stretching back generations:

It was during the 1980s that the presentation evolved into the pardoning ceremony it officially became in 1989.

Not that the supposedly “pardoned” turkey has to fear the White House oven anyway:

Turkeys destined for whole bird consumption are slaughtered at around four months old. … In contrast, the White House turkeys are of breeding stock age. They are always males, they weigh an average of fifty pounds, and they are between six and twelve months old. … [A]ccording to the National Turkey Federation, breeding-size birds “are processed for what are called canner packs—that is, they are going into soups or stews, things that are already cooked where the tenderness of the meat isn’t quite as important. And also, as you said, pet food and other byproducts, animal feed.

Davis has little patience for environmentalists who speak of reverence for the earth while heaping their plates with turkey (or other meat). In essence, we are all responsible for the ever-suffering, genetic mess that is the industrially-farmed turkey. Davis not only asks us to have compassion for the birds, but confront our own selfish desires. In parting, I leave you with these words…

I noted how euphoric it feels to “’think’ like a Mountain”—or…a Wild Turkey. However, it does not feel good to think like the wild turkey’s descendents and cousins on a factory farm or to put oneself vicariously through the events that put them there. It feels good to view oneself as an Environmental Hero in Chains seeking to unlock the key and run with the wild spirits of the earth, It does not feel good to see oneself through the eyes of one’s quotidian victims.



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