Ah yes, the traditional Thanksgiving turkey feast! The very thought of it brings up images of an iridescent copper and brown tom with a bright red and blue head, in a plump full strut stance. (sometimes we like to put funny little pilgrim hats on this mental image too.) Of course this has become more of a cartoonish symbolism for the holiday not really the meal itself. Today’s association with the actual meat of the day is a pinkish, oddly shaped mass; this time with funny little chef hats on the knees since the head is not available for the honor.
For those of you brave enough to go out to the poultry farm and hand select their dinner, you might be surprised that this iconic image of a turkey is, well… not of an earthy and metallic spectrum at all, but white instead? Of course it’s no accident, and it is not just some oddity of domestication either. Dinner birds are bred this way intentionally in the united states. The melanin in a natural bird’s developing feathers causes an undesirable spotting on the stripped dimpled flesh. Food is bred to such an extent that even the preprocessed color of it is designed to make you forget that your meat is a once real living thing.
Thanksgiving is a holiday in which we need to recognize the things that we have gained through the sacrifice and generosity of others, so let’s not allow the centerpiece of this event go unrecognized this year.
Every single meal you eat is sacred. Take a moment to remember that. Everything you do in your life hinges on the last few things you ate. The energy you receive from this allows you to create, provide, save the world, and engage in that ridiculous American custom of buying crap that neither you nor your loved ones need only hours after professing how thankful you are for everything already attained.
For us participating omnivores in metro USA, the link to the origins of our food has gone the way of burying electric lines and flushing toilets to an underground sewer. These are the necessities that we labored for thousands of years to transform from day to day life and death concerns to modern expectations, or even rights. When the deeper processes that realize these expectations are dredged back up into the light, they look a little different than before; they are not so sacred. In fact, the very thought of the details frighten, mystify, and even disgust us.
Can common “first world nation” food only be found underneath a cosmetic plastic wrapping in the shape of something not recognizable as cute? Or easily anthropomorphized? Do we trust an expiration date and a coded label more than our own experiences and good judgment? Have we lost the ability to see obvious spoilage? We are taught to believe that we do not have the understanding (and shouldn’t want it) to have a direct relationship with our food. The topic comes up from time to time, usually with nervous giggles at the sight of something like pickled chicken feet or a chicken with just a bit too much neck for comfort still attached. The escalation of abstraction has been staggering during the last few decades, to the point that it would be common for someone who bought a breast of chicken to throw it away if they should find a feather stuck to its underside. Salmonella, e-coli, botulism, so many small and deadly things out there. Best not take the chances, right? The invisible dangers of food have replaced the threatening demons we once prayed so hard at night to exercise.
But then again, there is one very public example of living meat wandering around (with head and all) during the thanksgiving festivities. Every year the great turkey pardon occurs in Washington DC. Here we have a message of compassion and some manner of empathy bestowed on potential dinner. On the face of it, the pardon shows a recognition of thankfulness to the food we eat, but it is also another interesting example of our discomfort regarding food with a face. It’s a bit too “real” for us perhaps? This action lacks its meaning when the foodie mags publish the pictures that we all ogle over at the private presidential dinner a little later that night. Naturally we can’t expect that every president has taken the pardon to mean, “It’s a vegetarian buffet for us this year.” Perhaps the Whitehouse could just eat fish instead? After all, many vegetarians have been able to cross that line of personal ethics.
Of course it’s a show and a tradition, but even it has its overly processed side to it. After a turkey’s selection, he or she must go through a bit of training. This means that for a while they live the life of a federalist raver: party music, camera flashes, and all sorts of wonderful desensitizing mechanisms are employed to prepare the birds for public life. We wouldn’t want them to freak out on the Commander in Chief after all. Imagine the scene: frenzied strobe lights, with the backdrop of national anthem blaring in your ears over and over and over again!? The milk bar no more for these poor birds.
What happens to the pardoned birds after the big event? Well, they go to a nice cultivated garden to live out the rest of their lives. Interestingly these lives are cut extremely short by failing hearts and arthritic joints. This is the result of a life lived for the single purpose of becoming huge and tasty. This breed is not meant to live past the little time it takes to make them succulent. In fact, the pardon is a promise to live on for a few more agonizing months or in rare cases years, their bodies decomposing before throngs of tourists who are so excited that they saw these very animals on TV. How generous we are.