What is behind the strange seasonal appeal of turkey? Here Wyatt Williams, journalist, food critic and author of Springer Mountain: Meditations on Killing and Eating, unplucks the "most overrated bird in the world."
Illustration by John Molesworth
A long time ago, a farmer told me a story about his hardest Thanksgiving. He’d pre-sold 120 Bourbon Red turkeys that he would have to deliver to 120 customers the week of Thanksgiving. Bourbon Reds are just about the most American bird that one can imagine: a showy white tail, puffed-up brown feathered body, and an ancient-looking blue and red head. It is a turkey that looks like it is dressed for a historical turkey reenactment. The customers had paid $200 a head for the privilege of taking one home for the carving board. The problem was that about a week before he planned to slaughter, a coyote got to his farm first. The farmer had woken up in the morning and found five turkeys torn to pieces, all of the meat gone. Just bones and feathers left.
Now, any farmer knows that this is part of the process, that turkeys live in a world of predator and prey in which they are almost always on the losing end. Good farmers plan ahead for this natural cycle and raise extra birds. Unfortunately for this guy, he hadn’t given himself enough wiggle room. He did a head count the morning of the coyote slaughter and was horrified to realise that he had 121 turkeys left. If the coyote came back the next night and took two, then he’d be short. Not to mention the fact that he’d already spent the pre-sale money to pay off a truck for the farm. He had to make a plan.
What he did was pull his nice, shiny new Ford around to the pasture, underneath the oak, where these fancy heritage breed luxury turkeys were living, and brought his shotgun. For a full week, he sat in the bed of his truck all night in the cold, clutching the double barrel, and looking over the whole flock of turkeys. He began some nights with a warning shot, hoping the sound of a gun would scare off any predators, but he knew that wasn’t a safe bet. So, he stayed there, occasionally receiving a hot cup of coffee that his kind wife would bring him, waiting to see a glimpse of a coyote. The predator never came back.
Later on, he couldn’t tell me if it was the warning shots that had worked, or the presence of his truck, or if the coyote was more of a journeyman, smart enough to kill and move on and not run into a guy like this farmer waiting for a return visit. The farmer said he was never sure what he would have done if the coyote had come back. Maybe shoot into the air to scare him? Or would he have had to kill the coyote to stop him from killing the turkeys? When I asked him whether it was all worth it, all that trouble and lost sleep, he just said, “You want to be the one to tell somebody they’re not having turkey for Thanksgiving? That sounds worse to me.”
The funniest part about this whole story is that turkey isn’t even very good. Every food writer and restaurant critic I know dreads the approach of the holiday season, which means planning coverage around the most overrated bird in the world. Never mind the fact that two ducks would be twice as rich and half the trouble. That a guinea hen has more flavour in her left leg than a turkey does in his whole body. Yet, we all keep doing it, because for some reason people just can’t imagine holidays without a big turkey on the table to carve. Is it a lack of imagination? A kind of collective amnesia in which everyone forgets how dry and bland the breast meat was last year and thinks this year will be different? I’ve stopped trying to understand it. All I can tell you is that I am writing this in my kitchen right now with a bone-in rib roast ready to cook in the smoker. If someone wants a turkey, they’re going to have to make it themselves.