Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Get Stuffed

The great bird revisited

Talking turkey in more ways than one

Two activities are up for the Most Irritating Social Protocol Award this time of year: raking up those damn leaves over and over, and serving up that damn turkey with all its incumbent leftovers day after day. The leaves, well, what can we do about leaves? But the turkey, hey, he could use a new perspective or at least a spin doctor to flesh out his image, so to speak.

Here’s the problem. I grew up in Edmonton and that meant turkey for Thanksgiving, turkey for Christmas and sometimes even turkey for Easter, depending on which auntie’s house you were at. So when those "festive" holidays roll around, it’s Pavlovian: buy a big honking turkey and all the trimmings. What are you, too cheap, too lazy to serve a turkey?

Now that’s just ducky if you have an extended family of, say, 42 people. But if you’re one of the great unwashed whose family is scattered hither and yon or is stuck between divorces, or whose circle of friends seems to dry up on holiday weekends, or who is simply living some non-traditional lifestyle, even if part of you remains starkly traditionalist, you can end up with this awkward situation.

Don’t buy a turkey and you feel like a traitor to your country and your childhood. Or do the right thing. But even if it’s a free-range, grain-fed, organic, more urbane, sort of Paris Hilton turkey, you’re still stuck with the bloody Saran-draped carcass occupying the fridge for the next two weeks.

Sure, there are those turkey roasts and turkey thighs all gussied up. But they seem so, well, depressing. Ditto the turkey pretenders that get trotted out on such "family" occasions – the roast chicken, the quails, the Cornish hens. It’s like they’re wagging their stunted wingtips at you, reprimanding you for not being average or normal enough to create the constant, drumstick-loving, wishbone-breaking family forever stuck in time and TV sitcoms that demands the bigger, SUV-sized bird.

But maybe all we need here is to revisit old Mr. Turkey. See him with fresh eyes, outside his rather limiting and limited waspish stereotypical roles.

On a positive note, we can look to Benjamin Franklin, printer, publisher, inventor, scientist and key instigator in separating the American colonies from England. You’d never catch old Ben complaining about gluey sandwiches stuffed with turkey leftovers, or cursing as he caught his sleeve on a greasy drumstick while reaching for a beer at the back of the fridge (mainly because he didn’t have a fridge).

Old Ben loved his turkey. So much so that he proposed naming it America’s national bird and placing it on the flag. Yep. The eagle, he argued, was a bird of "bad moral character". Are you with me on this? The turkey, he said, was a much more respectable bird. Imagine, a turkey fluttering atop the capital dome, or U.S. commandos crying, black turkey down! Ben might have been on to something there – a kinder, gentler, more Rick Mercer kind of America.

Ben’s championing of the turkey aside, the great bird has long maintained a huge presence in pop culture.

If you feel like being a rebel when you sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, just bring up cold turkey – and not the one that will soon be in your host’s fridge. The "cold turkey" that refers to withdrawing abruptly from drugs or anything addicting alludes to the cold sweats and pimply "goose-flesh" suffered. Talk about mixing your bird metaphors.

To "talk turkey" doesn’t mean to run on at the mouth, gobbling away, although we’ve come to use it that way. It originally meant speaking agreeably. Later, it came to mean speaking frankly about something touchy, like a teenaged daughter’s pregnancy.

In something of a deviation, a London newspaper of the 1920s used the phrase "talking cold turkey" to describe how a woman spoke about sex. I’ll leave the context to your imagination.

The turkey trot was a bouncy American ballroom dance dating from the exuberant period of post-World War I. And if you did it right, you imitated a turkey’s walk, bobbing quickly up and down to the ragtime music. On-lookers were not accustomed nor amused, to say the least.

Wild turkey reconsidered

We’re so used to seeing turkey either bound in plastic wrap at the butcher’s or as some cutesy piece of bric-a-brac bound for the Thanksgiving centrepiece, we forget this really is a wild bird that was a huge food source in the New World.

Two species of turkeys roam the earth. The common or wild turkey, and we aren’t talking bourbon here, is native to North America. It frequents – or at least it used to –much of America’s countryside, stopping for some unknown reason right at the 49 th parallel.

Unfortunately, like so many other North American species, pure wild turkey stocks are nearly extinct. Most of the wild birds found in carefully conserved areas today are mixed with domesticated stock. But with some luck you can spot a wild turkey in the wild not that far from Whistler – they still roam central Washington.

The wild male, called a gobbler or tom, grows to be over 4 feet long and weighs up to 16 pounds – much smaller than his chemically-pumped domesticated cousins. Still, he’s a formidable-looking bird with a stunning, complex mating ritual.

During courtship, the male fans out his tail feathers, drops his wings and shakes his quills audibly, like a peacock. He then struts about, gobbling away, a display so irresistible it attracts a harem of females. The most appealing part, if you’re a female turkey, is how his warty, fleshy red wattle turns brilliant blue.

In fact the turkey’s entire featherless head and neck changes colour as his mood alters, from white to turquoise to blue, pink, purple, orange and flaming red. I wonder if Ben was onto all this.

And did he know that turkeys can be amazingly primitive and vicious? In one case, a turkey with mud on its head was murdered by fellow turkeys simply because it looked odd. And turkeys can become enraged by unusual rocks or old bones. Then again, maybe Ben knew what he was talking about.

Central America is home to the other species of turkey. The ocellated turkey, smaller than the wild turkey of North America, is what Columbus encountered on an island off the coast of Honduras and was eventually carried by the Spanish back to Europe.

When the bird became popular in England, where it started it’s waspish holiday reputation, it was given the name turkey-cock, originally used for the guinea foul from Islamic (or Turkish) lands. The turkey, with all its trimmings, quickly supplanting the peacock and goose as "the" bird for festive occasions, and the rest is our problem today.

Turkey leftovers revisited

If you’ve had it up to your gizzard with turkey – likely, given that Canadians ate over 330 million pounds of turkey last year – you might find new inspiration from those who first cooked domesticated turkeys, the people of Central America.

The Whole Chile Pepper B

ook has a recipe for a mean tlaloc-chile stew (the Mayan god of rain and fertility was tlaloc, the turkey), and a superb smoked turkey dish with orange Cascabel chile sauce (see below). Mexicans traditionally prepare their turkey with a fragrant molé sauce.

But should your best culinary intentions run afoul and you end up drying out your turkey to a near-jerky state unsuitable for even leftovers, take solace in the fact that your bird couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the toughest of all dried-out turkeys. That honour belongs to America – Texas, actually, where the oldest known turkey, a fossil dating back 2.5 million years, was found. And, no, I’m not referring to the current U.S. president.

Smoked turkey with orange Cascabel sauce

Heat 1/2 cup of peanut oil then saute for 2 minutes: 6 dried crushed Cascabel chiles (seeds and stems removed), 2 dried crushed red chiles, 4 cloves minced garlic, 2 tbsp. finely chopped onion, 2 tbsp. orange zest and 2 tsp. chopped fresh ginger. In a blender, puree it all into a sauce. Add ground black pepper to taste. Split a 10-lb. turkey in half. Brush it with the chile oil and marinate a few hours in the fridge. Place the turkey, breast side up on, a barbecue, no lid. Baste with oil every half hour until the turkey is done, about 4 hours. Serve with warmed tortillas and the chile sauce on the side.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has a great bird about once a year.