Wednesday, November 27, 2002

History&Today: Thanksgiving edition
• The menu for the first Thanksgiving dinner included fish, venison, corn, squash, berries, and corn bread. There's no record that turkey was on the table.

Benjamin Franklin, advocating the turkey as the national bird:
The Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

From this morning's Chicago Tribune: the disappearance of the true turkey:
Glenn Drowns and other preservationist farmers fear the old-fashioned gobblers will vanish forever--unless more people can be persuaded to eat them. The factory birds are engineered to grow up fast and with lots of white meat. They spend their entire lives inside, being conceived, hatched, reared, slaughtered and packaged without spending a single moment in sunlight.All white and with short legs, they little resemble the darker, colorful, fan-tailed turkeys of the past. And according to Drowns, they aren't nearly as flavorful.

But a handful of giant turkey processors so dominates the market with cheap, conveniently packaged birds that most farmers quit raising traditional farmyard turkeys decades ago. Varieties that once strutted and preened by the millions--black Spanish, slate, buff, chocolate, auburn, white Holland and royal palm turkeys--now are almost gone. ...

If the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 served turkey, it would have been wild ones they hunted. A few years later, however, an English domestic variety, the Norfolk black, returned to the New World with 17th Century British settlers, and all present-day varieties probably trace back to those settlers' flocks and the wild turkeys they mingled with. ...

The dire straits of the old-fashioned turkeys became apparent in 1998 when the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, a national group working to conserve genetic diversity in farm animals, conducted a national turkey census.

• But of course, you can't really understand Thanksgiving's place in American lore without understanding the antithetical day that follows it: the king of all shopping days, The Day After Thanksgiving. Lest there be any doubt about which is the more American day, remember Thanksgiving 1939, which was officially moved up one week by President Franklin Roosevelt in order to lengthen the shopping season. Ever since, we've been similarly hurrying our gratitude and hastening our gratification, as I pondered in this post-Thanksgiving walk around the mall I took a few years ago:

Related: What if Friday were Buy Nothing Day? and Anna Quindlen on the problem with patriotic consumption

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