Talkin’ Turkey

When you’re eating turkey Thursday, consider, for a moment, the bird.

Two hundred and twenty years ago, this noble animal very nearly became our national symbol. Now, it’s the Rodney Dangerfield of comestibles.

Whenever someone does something dumb, we say he’s a “turkey.” When he jogs along in a clumsy half-lope, we call his jittery step a “turkey trot.” Sure, the modern farmed bird has been bred down to a condition of sublime stupidity, but the wild American native is quick, sure-footed, wily and very smart.

Take the turkey trot. It started with a transport practice used by poultry farmers in 18th century England. The birds were too big and heavy to cage and cart, so they were walked to market with their feet bound in leather booties so they would arrive in good shape. The poor birds lumbered down the cobblestones like toddlers in too-big Uggs. The unfortunate rolling motion was resurrected in the Roaring Twenties as a dance where couples twirled in circles jutting out their necks and bobbing their heads. Thankfully, the turkey trot was quickly supplanted by the more graceful fox trot.

As for brains, turkeys were so admired in the early days of our history, that they were chosen by our Founding Fathers to be America’s symbolic animal. But, in 1782, when the country was at war, some in Congress wanted a more martial animal, so they commissioned a Philadelphia artist. He drew them a Golden Eagle-and Ben Franklin protested immediately. The Golden Eagle already flew on European flags. Why not a bold, brave, and brightly colored native bird? Why not the turkey?

Thus began a national debate Franklin almost won. He argued that the bald eagle is a “bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy.” The turkey is a “much more respectable bird, and withal a true original Native of America … though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards.”

A partial compromise was reached with an unofficial adoption of the bald eagle as a standard carried for wartime. Once the war was over, Franklin resumed his battle for the bird. The issue was still unsettled as plans were taking shape for Washington’s inauguration. Franklin had majority opinion on his side and Washington was said to want the wild turkey, but the invitations went out with an eagle, and the rest, as they say, is history.

An indignant Franklin wrote, the eagle is a “rank coward: the little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out.” He continued in a petulant voice, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country-he does not get his living honestly,” referring to the fact that eagles steal their dinner from better fisher birds, while turkeys graze for grain.

For the past 56 years, our presidents have made a symbolic effort to apologize for the indignities borne by the bird. Thursday morning, President Bush will pardon one Missouri turkey from the butcher’s axe and parole him to a Virginia farm, but thousands of his cousins will grace our groaning boards. And, as you dine, remember that only males gobble. Turkey hens just tsk and cluck like busy cooks in a steamy kitchen. Enjoy your holiday!

Laura Bush’s Corn Bread Dressing

Whatever the political persuasion of our guests, this superb, easy and quite traditional turkey dressing has become a favorite in our house. We don’t use it to stuff the bird for two reasons: the bread becomes dense and gooey, and I’m leery about salmonella. Instead, we stuff the turkey’s cavity with masses of fresh herbs, citrus fruit and whole peeled onions for flavor and moisture – and serve Mrs. Bush’s dressing as a side dish.

Serves 12 – 14

Corn bread*

1 cup fresh sage, chopped

2 sticks unsalted butter

1 Tbs. olive oil

3 cups onions, chopped

3 cups celery, chopped

3 cups turkey stock, warm

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Crumble corn bread in a large bowl and add sage. Set aside.

3. Melt 10 tablespoons of butter with the olive oil. Sauté onions and celery until soft. Mix with the corn bread. Season with salt and pepper and place in a 9 x 12 glass baking dish.

4. Melt remaining butter with the stock and drizzle over the top.

5. Cover with foil and bake 10 minutes until brown. Add more stock if it’s dry.

* I use Marie Callendar’s mix, adding extra sugar.