- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The turkey is mixed up in a lot more than today’s sumptuous dinner.

The big feathered one has become a cultural force. Why, the American turkey is political cause, myth, icon, industry — not just something to be stuffed and savored.

Thanksgiving’s turkey tradition may be more myth than reality. A firsthand account of the original Pilgrim fare in 1621 records that the Plymouth colonists had “fowl” for their fall feast, without specifying turkey. The main course for the Mayflower folk was venison, the local Indians having “killed five deer” for their three-day banquet with the 51 surviving English settlers.

A poll last week from market-research group Porter Novelli reveals that people who eat turkey once a week tend to be stylishly dressed, prefer unpredictable friends, are competitive and health-conscious.

“In reality, turkey eaters are trendsetters,” said Porter spokeswoman Deanne Weber.

And they may be feeling guilty as well.

Thanksgiving is a showcase for animal rights folks and vegetarians who believe that turkeys deserve roosting rather than roasting.

On Monday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals accused the White House of creating “Turkeygate” by making “false assertions” about the fate of turkeys who receive a “presidential pardon.” The group also urged President Bush to be “compassionate” and eat a tofu turkey instead.

Meanwhile, the California-based Adopt-a-Turkey shelter continues to take donations and broker adoptions between turkey aficionados and orphaned birds with endearing names like “Tuttle” and “Darby.”

On Saturday, the group sponsored a Thanksgiving supper for the turkeys themselves that featured “festooned tables,” pumpkin pie and squash, advising onlookers that “it is a time to remember all the millions of turkeys who will die this Thanksgiving to become holiday dinner.”

Clear on the other side of turkeydom, the South Carolina-based, half million-member National Wild Turkey Foundation offers its own brand of “turkey trivia” — mostly the proper hunting of the birds, turkey-calling techniques and safety issues.

Not to be outdone, Pro’s Choice, an online hunting supplier (www.turkeyhuntingsecrets.com) offers “turkey myths” that hunters have invented to explain why they’re “consistently outwitted by the bird.”

Wild turkeys do not have X-ray vision, says proprietor Roger Raisch. The birds also cannot hear the ticking of a watch at 20 yards or detect slight irregularities in the turkey-calling prowess of the hunter in the brush.

Turkeys get mixed up in popular issues as well.

The American Farm Bureau is blaming higher turkey prices this year on the much ballyhooed Atkins Diet, which stresses meat over carbohydrates. Demand for meat is up, demand for bread is down.

Somehow, that translates into higher prices — about 57 cents more per turkey this year than last.

Of course, Britain’s National Farmers Union released a CD on Monday that features Gregorian chants, whale calls, wind chimes and rustling forest leaves for use by 300 of the country’s turkey farmers to help calm their birds during the, uh, eating season.

But back to these shores.

We have turkey as therapy. Witness the understanding home economists at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which has fielded 2.6 million calls from harried holiday cooks in the last 23 years.

This year, 50 advisers will respond “with TLC,” not to mention in English and Spanish, says Butterball spokeswoman Sherleen Clausen.

Turkey is more than talk therapy, though.

According to the Washington-based National Turkey Federation, protein-rich turkey meat can “improve your mood naturally … a turkey sandwich before a meeting is much more likely to boost alertness than a plain bagel or candy bar.”

We seem to be amenable to the idea. Turkey consumption has gone up 113 percent in the last three decades, to nearly 18 pounds a person a year. Even our pets eat it: 13 percent of the nation’s processed turkey goes into pet foods.

But the National Wild Turkey Foundation is also heavily into turkey lore, which time and again reminds Americans that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey — not the eagle — as the nation’s official bird, deeming it “more respectable” than its hook-billed cousin.

And while many Americans argue the merits of roasted, deep fried, brined, barbecued, flavor-injected or chili-peppered turkey these days, there is a growing population that craves a gobbler-free holiday.

One Florida hunting guide advocates alligator meat as an acceptable Thanksgiving substitute.

A 2-pound alligator loin, Mark Clemons told the Fort Myers News-Press on Monday, is tasty with butter, garlic and lemon juice, “sliced in crosscuts with an optional garnish of hydrilla.”

The Bubble Room — a restaurant on Captiva Island, Fla. — votes for “grouper in a bag” on Thanksgiving.

“A half-pound fillet encrusted in a mixture of Ritz crackers, nuts and just enough water to make a paste” is just dandy, the Bubble Room chefs say, adding that they roast the fish in an oiled paper bag.

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