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Flavorless and Flightless: A Thanksgiving Tradition

6 mins

You would think the turkey would have long since escaped the prison of human exploitation. Why? Because it is inedible. Surely Mother Nature herself is puzzled by Turkey’s victimhood, having deliberately designed the thing to discourage predation.

Table of Contents

Not to introduce yet another conspiracy, but is there a secret turkey cabal? There must be. How else to explain the ongoing seasonal enthusiasm for a bird that tastes about as good as it flies?

Now, vegans are also ethicists, opposed to the enslavement and exploitation of animals.

In the case of the Thanksgiving Turkey, it’s amazing any such argument need be made at all. You would think the turkey had long since escaped the prison of human exploitation. Why? Because it is inedible. Surely Mother Nature herself is puzzled by Turkey’s victimhood, having deliberately designed the thing to discourage predation.

In the timeless seasonal tale, a sympathetic and inedible turkey offers counsel to a starved bear.

We’ve all seen the extraordinary slow motion Wild Kingdom video that became an occasion for heartwarming contemplation.  A brown bear awakens from its long hibernation, starving and voracious. Seeing a possible meal, it charges roaring into the forest clearing, slams on the brakes in a cloud of flying dust and yells into the empty air; ”Aww. It’s just a stupid turkey!”

It is an amazing document, one the animal rights sector quickly leveraged with its successful anti-Thanksgiving turkey campaign: “A starved bear wouldn’t eat that thing”.

Bone Dry Pharoah Food

As a festive holiday food, the turkey has a lot going for it. That’s the insistent seasonal rumor anyway. Sitting down to eat a plate of copiously stacked turkey is another story. The meat is very dry, and that is a massive understatement. How dry is it? Toss an oven-roasted turkey into a 30-gallon baby pool and it’ll suck up every last ounce of water. It is the darndest thing. Then simply deflate the empty pool, store it in the garage, wring out your thanksgiving turkey over the sink and serve. So there is that element of convenience.  

Thanksgiving turkey as a methodology for draining the toddler pool.

During the thanksgiving meal, also watch for signs of slow mummification / dehydration as your guests chew and chew (and chew) their water-leeching turkey slices and have the moisture slowly drawn from their vital organs. This explains why your thanksgiving dinner guests look like shriveled, ancient pharaohs by the end of the festive holiday meal. If you’ve ever wondered.

"Trimmings": Don't be Fooled

Consider the saying turkey with all the trimmings. Now note how rarely the word “turkey” appears without its sidekick “…with all the trimmings”. Why? Because without the trimmings, the turkey is 8 – 12 lbs. of cotton-mouth shaped vaguely like a bird. 

The “trimmings” are a complex tactical distraction designed to make this enormous bland object appear festive and even edible — surrounded as it is by a clattering army of colorful side dishes.  G'head. Heap on all the potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and Auntie Marge’s startling “Pea Mush” you can manage. You will still have to Face the Turkey, as the saying goes.

Look, I don’t mean for this holiday message to have the discouraging keynote “no escape!”

But there is no escape.

"Stuffing" is both Noun and Verb. 

As holiday terminology goes, there may be no more brutally honest a word than this one. Especially if you’ve ever stood in the kitchen and watched someone stuff a turkey. Whatever indignities the animal was able to avoid in life are visited upon it in the “turkey stuffing” ritual, which can look more like a post-mortem punishment than a joyous meal prep.

Avoid the Thanksgiving kitchen. Why? Your hairy-forearmed host is angrily yelling “GIT IN THERE!” with every stuffing-thrust, his dangling cigarette sprinkling ash into the mixture even as it is jammed into the bird. Good luck eating the result.


Turkeys are incredibly flavorful, with delicate notes of cedar, saffron, and wildflower. But just in case, it is sometimes useful to soak them in brine. Right? Is there any turkey preparation that more frankly confronts the flavorless bird problem? In fairness, the object of soaking the turkey in brine is not so much to make it taste like the filthy cubist salt lick in the middle of a cow pasture, as to find some way, any way, to get the bird to retain even a thimbleful of moisture.

Most turkeys can be talked into believing Thanksgiving is a day of "Flightless Bird Pampering"

Why? Why does this bird turn to heavy-duty cotton wadding after a few hours in the oven? Cuz it’s big, weird-shaped, and as inefficient a heat distributor as anything we try to eat in a spirit of celebration.

Turkey, Oven Heat, Physics, and a Fleeting Mention of Zombies.

The problem is cooking itself, which requires … um … heat? A hot meal is the standard, wherein our eats are made more delicious by their radiant warmth. Why is warm food more delicious? We’re told that this is because of the way the TRPM5 in our taste buds is activated by warm foods. TRPM5 is a chemical choo-choo (not to infantilize the science) that moves signals through cell membranes, triggering sensory experiences like taste. 

Common knowledge tells us that warming almost anything makes it delicious. Almost anything.

It’s believed that warmer food makes for a more intense flavor experience because a higher temp on the tongue somehow sends a stronger electrical signal to the brain. {You may recall that the brain is that lump of electrified jelly trapped in our heads which decodes the storm of flapdoodle our five senses are sending it every crowded nanosecond. Yes, we’re thankful for our brains, and suitably annoyed at the zombies who would eat them} … Where was I?

E = MC Scared. Pass the Gravy. 

Heating our food does something less chemically exotic than triggering TRPM5. The heat also kills the microbial life that — if it had its way — would see us projectile vomiting for several days on either side of a joyous holiday meal. Nobody wants that. Or only a select few of us, anyway. So we need to thoroughly heat our turkey in order to euthanize the microbial jackasses who would otherwise sicken us, or worse. 

But getting oven heat to thoroughly permeate the bird, reliably killing off any and all life inside?

That’s a puzzle that would’ve vexed Einstein in those moments he wasn’t crazily yammering about “curved space” and such. Hoo boy, we coulda used his help on this turkey thing, but whatever.

 As you supposed, the basic problem is one of thermal conduction, which describes how heat moves through solid matter by furtively creeping from particle to particle. In plain language, by the time the heat penetrates to the core of the enormous ovoid bird, it has long since turned the outer regions of your turkey to lightly salted fiberglass.

The solution is to constantly baste the turkey like a sailor frantically bailing out a lifeboat—just to keep the drying bird from shriveling to the size of a smoldering mitten.

Seasonally Thankful

Gratitude is a seasonal ceremony—a curious tradition in which we gather with family and friends around a table filled with edible riches, a symbol of our common good fortune. Never mind the misfortune sitting in the center of the whole display; the large turkey your frightened companions will soon have to get to work chewing.

Next year let's try a lavish spread of nature’s best—the living, nutrient-rich stuff that comes out of the ground, fed on sunlight and bursting with energy and goodness. That's the ticket to a meal that actually earns our gratitude.

Above all, Thanksgiving is, of course, about gathering family and friends in a teary embrace. Murmured words of warmth and affection will alternate with hoarse, angry shouting on this most American of holidays. In the middle of it all? A dried-out, stiffening, untouched bird filled with cigarette ash and wet bread. It is wearing decorative little paper cuffs on its drumsticks.

Gratitude? You betcha. When the time comes to push away from the table and head to the car, you will feel gratitude like a warm tsunami.

There’s a reason the traditional portrayal of a cornucopia — the famous Horn of Plenty — is overflowing with abundant fruits and vegetables. Let’s give the turkey a break. Maybe in the helpful pause, the poor bird can take flying lessons.



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