Eating Over The Sink

I’m told that in early December, Portuguese turkey farmers peddle their flocks on the streets of Lisbon. They do this for two reasons: because Lisbon is in Portugal, and is therefore a handy place to sell their turkeys, and because they don’t have Thanksgiving in that country.

If they did have Thanksgiving, they would sell their turkeys a week or two earlier, but the rest of the procedure would remain the same. When a customer makes a selection from among the turkeys offered, the turkey farmer pours alcohol down the bird’s gullet and allows it a few last moments of drunken freedom. As soon as the poor creature passes out, it is quickly dispatched and sent home with the presumably happy customer, who plucks it and marinates it in laurel (bay leaf to those of you out of the loop), and lime juice.

Now, I don’t know for sure that this is a true accounting of the mystique of turkeys in Portugal, but then do any of us know anything for sure about the history of man’s interaction with turkeys anywhere? For example, someone at the dining table always pulls apart the wishbone, right? Where did this idea come from? Of course, you know that I will tell you forthwith, so gather ’round.

It is said that the Etruscans, who lived in the quite ancient country called Etruria that was located in what is presently the Tuscany and Umbria areas of Italy, used to play an early version of Ouija. You know, that game where the spirits of the players’ knees cause the pointer to spell out words and answer questions. Well, the Etruscan version was played by laying out the letters of their alphabet around a circle drawn in the dirt on the ground in front of the Seekers. Next to each letter, they put a small pile of grain. The question was asked in a solemn tone, and then a chicken was set in the circle and allowed to eat from thevarious piles of grain. (The Etruscans couldn’t do this with a turkey, because they didn’t have any New World turkeys, the New World not having been discovered for another 2000 years. But chicken and turkey wishbones look pretty much the same, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so let’s not get too picky here.)

The chicken went pecking around the piles, and after she had performed her job of spelling out answers, she was killed for her trouble and cooked for dinner. Her collarbone, which we call the wishbone, was saved and dried so that, later on, two people could pull it apart. The person who broke off the larger piece was said to “get the lucky break,” and win the wish.

You have to admit that the tradition of turkeys, at least as they relate to Thanksgiving, isn’t very clear. As we all know, the pilgrim colonists came to America in 1620 on the ship called Mayflower, and landed at Plymouth Rock in what is now Massachusetts. They hadn’t planned on landing so far north, but their captain wasn’t too swift. And, not so swift either, were the colonists themselves, who knew practically nothing about farming, next to nothing about hunting, and even less about carving out an existence for themselves under mini-iceageconditions, in a foreign, frozen land. During the first year, at least half the settlers died.

So at the end of that dreadful year, they were ready to have acelebration, mostly celebrating that some of them were still around to tell the story. But, we can be pretty sure they didn’t have the party in November! August, September, maybe even early October, but not once the snows started again.

Whenever it was, legend tells us they invited the locals, a friendly Indian group, to dinner where they ate wild turkeys, corn, pumpkin, cranberries, meat pies, and English creamed soup. But, in point of fact, we don’t know what they ate anymore than we know when they ate it. Nonetheless, the legend was good enough the way it was until 1954.

In 1954 big things happened in the world of turkeys, and life has never been the same since. Butterball turkeys came on the market in that year, making sure that the bird that reached the table on Thanksgiving tasted nothing like the tough, stringy, mostly dark-meat wild turkey that the Indians may or may not have brought to the first Thanksgiving feast. But, more to the issue, people didn’t want to eat their Thanksgiving dinners in the dining room anymore; they wanted TV trays.

By 1954, some 70 percent of American families owned at least one television set, and everyone wanted to spend as much time in front of the tube as was possible. Enter Swanson and the TV Dinner. Thanksgiving dinner could be celebrated, legends and all, in the living room for only 98 cents per person. The Swanson TV dinner (only one variety, if you can imagine that) was turkey with gravy, corn bread dressing, buttered peas, and mashed potatoes with a pat of butter on top. Served up in one of those three-section aluminum trays, it was advertised as the “most delicious turkey dinner you never had to cook!”

This year Glorious Spouse and I will be cooking our Legendary Turkey for different members of our family: my brother, his wife, and his four kids. We don’t usually spend the holiday with these kin since they live in the midwest. So, to fit their ideas of the legendary holiday, we’ll be preparing some high carb foods along with things that fit our low carb life style. Bread dressing, sweet potatoes, and a pie or two. We’ll be glad to celebrate Thanksgiving in the dining room, not in front of the TV. And we won’t care that no one knows very much about the first Thanksgiving. It’ll be great. We’ll be thankful for the opportunity to be together while we all still have our health. And we’ll be thankful for a lot of the things we usually take for granted, things like refrigeration, indoor plumbing, and hot peppers.


Zack Grady eats his turkey in Southern California with homemade mayonnaise.

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Eating Over The Sink

ZACK GRADY writes from Southern California. He reads cookbooks, but mostly, he just adds garlic and hot sauce.

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