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Thursday, February 2, 2023

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How the US Became a Turkey Nation

If you want to understand the enormity of America’s relationship with turkey, consider the TV dinner. By 1952, Swanson was the largest turkey farmer in the world and had many unsold turkeys left over after Thanksgiving and Christmas. To address some of the unwanted poultry, the company created the first turkey TV dinners that included cornbread stuffing and a sweet potato. Some doubted that Americans would want to eat roast turkey all year round, but by the end of their first year on the market, 10 million of these new frozen dinners had been sold.

This year’s Thanksgiving will test just how attached Americans are to eating turkey. The turkey industry has been hit hard by bird flu, leading to the culling of entire flocks. About 80% of fresh whole turkey sales usually occur in November, but prices are almost twice what they were last year and certain sizes of birds are becoming scarce.

Still, something tells me it takes more to get turkey off the Thanksgiving table – if, as a Brit with American relatives, I may comment on the subject. In 2020, about 46 million whole turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving alone, and more than 90% of Americans consume turkey as part of Thanksgiving dinner, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Nothing in the American diet is as muttered yet as universally eaten as a Thanksgiving turkey. For the vast majority of Americans, a giant roast bird is a non-negotiable part of the feast. As food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has written, “Year after year, we gather around the festive table, thinking of that turkey as we think of our family members: One of those things we just have to put up with before the wine and pie sets in. “

Few dishes cause as much cooking anxiety as a turkey roast. Since 1981, Butterball’s turkey tallow line has been answering questions about how to prepare the bird. The lines are manned by people trained to answer complicated questions about the virtues of spatchcocking, how to get the legs done without drying out the white meat, and whether it’s worth brining the turkey before roasting it . But apparently the most popular question by far is how do I defrost it? Unfortunately, if you call Thursday morning to ask, you’re too late, because the answer is to keep it in the fridge for three or four days.

Tradition is the main reason for the non-negotiable Thanksgiving turkey, although some of the “facts” and quotes you’ll find on the Internet about turkey’s patriotic qualities are just fabricated. For example, it is not true that Benjamin Franklin proposed that the turkey should be the national bird of the US rather than the bald eagle – although he praised the turkey as a “true Native American”.

In fact, the average American eats far more turkey today than their ancestors ever did, and the turkey itself is a completely different bird. Wild turkeys were certainly eaten by the first European settlers, but these were small gamy fowl that were very different from the average farmed turkey. Native Americans roasted these delicious birds on a spit, and the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony seem to have eaten them as part of their second Thanksgiving dinner, in 1623. But there were no dry turkey sandwiches or turkey meatballs in 1623; both were inventions of the post-war turkey industry, designed to get people to eat more turkey all year round.

Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture suggest that U.S. turkey consumption is slightly down to 15.4 pounds per person per year in 2021, down from 16 pounds in 2019. But this is still a huge amount of turkey, over a pound per person per year. month . In contrast, the average person in the US consumed only 1.7 pounds of turkey per year in 1935, down from 8 pounds in 1970.

Every so often, brave trailblazers try to question Thanksgiving turkey’s dominance, whether it’s for taste or animal cruelty or to “decolonize” the meal. In the 1980s, humor writer Calvin Trillin waged his own personal campaign to change the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti carbonara. His reasoning was, first, that he liked spaghetti carbonara, and second, that “one of the things I give thanks every year is that those people in the Plymouth Colony are not my ancestors.”

In his 2009 book “Eating Animals,” writer Jonathan Safran Foer argued that gathering around a festive vegetarian meal would be much closer to the true spirit of Thanksgiving, given the grotesquely inhumane ways most turkeys are raised. Experts regularly predict that turkey is about to lose ground to vegetarian alternatives such as tofurky, a vegan substitute made from tofu and wheat. Sure, tofurky has done extremely well in recent years, with sales up 37% in 2020. Still, the total tofurky market in the US is about $50 million, compared to more than $5 billion for turkey.

I often think that the holiday meal is almost as delicious without the presence of a giant turkey centerpiece. Most of my favorite things on the table are meatless sides: rich, chestnut-like filling; buttery mashed potatoes; sweet, roasted root vegetables.

If the turkey was gone, I’d miss the leftovers and especially the stock, which I look forward to all year. I put the turkey carcass in my largest stockpot, add water and maybe some onion garnish, and let it simmer until it’s rich and golden brown and the whole kitchen is filled with homey fug. Usually we make some kind of noodle soup out of it. As Barbara Kafka wrote in her excellent cookbook “Roasting: A Simple Art,” turkey stock is “the best part of the turkey, a delicious home for good egg noodles, just-cooked rice, or, if you’re alone, sad or happy, a poached egg.” Roast turkey can sometimes disappoint, but turkey stock is always a reason to say thank you.

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