Can a Turkey Be a Historical Artifact?


Mr. Rees is an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo. He blogs about historical matters at More or Less Bunk.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving 2007, the New York Timesran a story about the booming market for heritage turkeys.  A heritage turkey can be any turkey from a breed other than the kind found in most grocery stores.  As the Times described it, this niche has grown greatly in recent years in response to the homogenization of the market:

Virtually all of turkeys raised in the United States come from one basic line, a broad-breasted White that George Nicholas developed in California in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he had perfected a breed that produced meat so efficiently that it became the industry standard.

The problem is, the birds can’t fly or reproduce without the help of artificial insemination, and their bland meat has produced a nation of diners for whom dry, overcooked Thanksgiving turkey is an annual disappointment.

The turkey farmer profiled in this story compared our choice of turkeys to the idea of Americans only being able to eat one kind of apple.

According to the RAFT collaborative (RAFT stands for Renewing America’s Food Traditions), the turkey was first domesticated more than 2,000 years ago.  Carried back to Europe by the Spanish, those turkeys bred with local wild species.  Since the middle of the nineteenth century, eight to ten American breeds have been recognized. 

In RAFT’s 2008 book Renewing America’s Food Traditions (edited by Gary Paul Nabhan), the collaborative profiles the Narragansett Turkey and other rare regional foods picked from American culinary history such as the Clearstone Peach and the Tennessee Fainting Goat.  Each of these foods, RAFT suggests, are a reflection of the local culture that used to consume them. 

Ironically, as the book explains, the best way to preserve that culture is often to eat the threatened food, thereby creating a market for it.  This can save not only the species itself by making it profitable to raise or grow, but the cultural practices that surround its consumption.  Particular foods take on historical significance because of what they meant to the people who ate them.

Have Americans undertaken important cultural practices over turkey dinner?  Do they continue to do so today?  Of course they do.  Therefore a turkey, as a symbol of these practices, can certainly be described as an historical artifact.  But I can’t help but wonder which turkey is the best symbol of American culture: the Narragansett or the industrialized bird that so many of us will consume on Thursday.

According to AvianWeb.com, the Narragansett “descends from a cross between native Eastern Wild turkeys and the domestic turkeys (probably Norfolk Blacks) brought to America by English and European colonists beginning in the 1600’s.”  Named after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, this turkey was once the basis of the entire American turkey industry.  In the wake of the broad-breasted White, however, the Narragansett almost became extinct. There were only a few hundred around as recently as 2002.  Then it became a favorite of those looking for a better Thanksgiving meal. 

The Narragansett is not the wild bird of the Pre-Columbian era, but could any living bird ever be?  There are back-breeding programs at both Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts designed to remove the modern traits of the livestock that reside in these historical recreations.  A heritage turkey is a lot like Colonial Williamsburg.  Most people who buy one probably don’t care whether its “authentic.”  They simply want to enjoy the experience. 

For food to be a historical artifact, it doesn’t have to be authentic either.  It simply has to tell us more about us than it does about nature.  Michael Pollan, before he started as a food writer, made a similar point about tulips while discussing the Dutch Tulip Mania of the 1600s.  “In time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower,” he wrote, “and the flower did what it had always done: made itself more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding into its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes.”  In other words, culture was and continues to be reflected in the way that tulips evolve because our preferences determine the course of that evolution. 

The same is true of today’s industrialized turkeys.  Their large size and cheap price reflect our interest in eating lots of food at the lowest possible cost.  The fact that these turkeys grow too fat to breed the old-fashioned way reflects upon the technological success of American agriculture and the public’s lack of interest in the quality of life of the animals it consumes.  Our willingness to accept the bland flavor of an industrialized turkey suggests that Americans are losing the memory of how food is supposed to taste.

Enjoy your industrialized turkey if you can, but in three hundred years time I doubt anyone will want to recreate today’s Thanksgiving experience.  

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