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21 Nov 2018

Traditions fair and fowl – Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, also colloquially known as “Turkey Day.” I will not be doing anything tomorrow evening—well, we won’t be doing anything directly related to Thanksgiving, at any rate—but on Saturday I will be heading over to Kevin’s to share a meal with him and some friends. There will be no turkey, though; if you followed the link in the previous sentence, you’ll have seen that we will be chowing down on a wide variety of foods that are not turkey. Pulled meats (pork and beef), ribs, sundry sausages, and chicken will fill out the hefty protein portion of the repast. This will be supplemented by slaws, both corn and cole, along with stuffing and mac & cheese for some carbohydrate action. To the carbs I will be adding my traditional soda bread (because it is quick and easy to make, can be done on site and thus eaten fresh out of the oven, and is delicious). I will also be bringing along HJ’s cranberry sauce and the ingredients for apple crumble, which will also be put together and baked on site.

“...traditions are an important part of how we both construct and perform our identities.”

I am not at all perturbed by the lack of turkey. In fact, we did toss around the idea of possibly doing a turkey when the theme started to swing back toward an actual Thanksgiving meal, but I put the kibosh on that. Turkey takes forever to cook in a full-sized gas oven, and would likely be unfeasible in Kevin’s smaller electrical oven. Also, let’s be honest here: Turkey is not all that tasty. This is not to say that I have never had decent turkey in my life. Indeed I have. But in almost all cases I probably would have preferred something else. I can think of one time when I had turkey that was really good, full stop. Not “really good for turkey,” the way that a competently performed piano piece might be “really good for a six-year-old.” No, I’m talking just straight up amazing, like Mozart. This turkey had been deep-fried, and it was delicious. The frying had locked in all the juices and made the turkey moist and succulent—two things not generally associated with turkey. But deep-frying a turkey is potentially dangerous and not easy; I’ve also had deep-fried turkey that turned out not very good at all. And even that ideal deep-fried turkey, well, that’s the best that turkey is ever going to get. All things considered, if it’s got to be fowl, I’d rather have chicken or duck.

So why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Slate published a brief article in 2007 outlining some of the reasons. In short, in the early days of the nation, turkey was the economical choice. Cows were more valuable for milk and other purposes, and chickens were valuable for the eggs they laid. Plus, you could feed a lot more people with a turkey than you could with a chicken, especially since chickens were not as freakishly large back then as they are today. By the time Thanksgiving was made an official national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the turkey had already been established as the protein of the day.

However, this doesn’t actually answer the question. It tells us why we ate turkey on Thanksgiving, but it doesn’t tell us why we still eat turkey on Thanksgiving today. After all, chicken is now much more economical than it used to be, and we thus don’t really have to worry about being able to feed everyone with just one bird (although, from an ethical standpoint, slaughtering a single turkey to feed a large family does cause less suffering than slaughtering several chickens). And we have plenty of other protein options that are not birds, all of which are tastier than turkey. So why do so many people still stick with the turkey? The answer is simple: tradition.

Of course, the answer is not really that simple, because tradition is a very complex thing. As a folklorist, I am obviously very interested in traditions—how they are formed, how they are handed down, why they persist, etc. I don’t really want to get into the weeds on this today, but suffice it to say that traditions are an important part of how we both construct and perform our identities. For many Americans, there are just certain things that you do because they are part of the American identity, like mixing alcohol and explosives in an attempt to see how many digits we can obliterate while celebrating our independence from Great Britain. Culture is never as monolithic as we sometimes think it is, but shared traditions help to bring us together despite our differences.

That’s great, and I do think that traditions are important, but what happens when those traditions become problematic? You might be thinking of some more serious examples right now, but I am going to stay away from that, because that’s not really the point I’m getting at today. The point I’m getting at is that the tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving is problematic because turkey sucks, and maintaining a tradition that sucks just because it is a tradition is stupid. What a lot of people don’t realize is that traditions are living things; they are not carved in stone by the finger of God and brought down from Mt. Sinai to the people below. They are born, they live, and then they die to make way for new traditions. And it is time for the turkey tradition to die.

I am not the first person to say this, of course. Many people have said it before me, and probably more eloquently at that. But I’m not saying this to be original; I’m saying it to add my voice to the chorus calling for an end to the tyranny of Big Turkey. What is Thanksgiving about, after all? And don’t try to be woke and clever and say, “genocide.” You know what I mean: For most people, Thanksgiving is about getting together with friends and family and arguing about politics. No, wait—I mean, it’s about getting together, sharing a meal, and building ties of community and solidarity. Or, at least, that’s ideally what it should be about. The truth is that Thanksgiving is often problematic in actual practice.

But we’re at risk of losing the thread here. We’re not going to be able to change the political views of our friends and family. We’re not going to be able to prevent older members of the family telling the younger members of the family to get jobs/get married/have kids/all of the above. There are a lot of things that we’re never going to be able to change because families will always be families. But is within our grasp to change at least one unsavory thing about this holiday, and that is what we eat. Stuffing I am all for. Cranberry sauce is awesome, too (real cranberry sauce, not that canned, gelatinized crap). Mashed potatoes are a thing of beauty. And I think everyone can agree that pie ranks up there among humanity’s greatest inventions. But the turkey has to go. It takes way too long to prepare and cook, and even if you do it right it’s still not going to be as tasty as chicken or pulled pork or whatever else you might want to eat. Instead of enjoying all those lovely side dishes, we use them to mask the turkey and make it more palatable (at least, that’s what I used to do). Why? Why not eat a protein that we enjoy as much as those side dishes?

It’s probably too late to change any minds this time around, but I would urge you to take a cold, hard look at yourself if you end up sitting down to a turkey this Thanksgiving. Are you really enjoying it? If you are, hey, that’s great. You chow down on your turkey and have a great time. But if you’re not enjoying it, why are you eating it? Because that’s just what you do on Thanksgiving? Pshaw, I say. It is time for the eating of turkey to join other unsavory traditions in the dustbin of history. Join me. We might not be able to change the world, but at least we can make it a little tastier.

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