“WHAT IS ADDED BY HAVING a turkey on the Thanksgiving table? Maybe it tastes good, but taste isn’t the reason it’s there — most people don’t eat very much turkey throughout the year. (Thanksgiving Day accounts for 18 percent of annual turkey consumption.) And despite the pleasure we take in eating vast amounts, Thanksgiving is not about being gluttonous — it is about the opposite.
Perhaps the turkey is there because it is fundamental to the ritual — it is how we celebrate Thanksgiving. Why? Because Pilgrims might have eaten it at their first Thanksgiving? It’s more likely that they didn’t. We know that they didn’t have corn, apples, potatoes, or cranberries, and the only two written reports from the legendary Thanksgiving at Plymouth mention venison and wildfowl. Though it’s conceivable that they ate wild turkey, we know that the turkey wasn’t made part of the ritual until the nineteenth century. And historians have now discovered an even earlier Thanksgiving than the 1621 Plymouth celebration that English-American historians made famous. Half a century before Plymouth, early American settlers celebrated Thanksgiving with the Timucua Indians in what is now Florida — the best evidence suggests that the settlers were Catholic rather than Protestant, and spoke Spanish rather than English. They dined on bean soup.
But let’s just make believe that the Pilgrims invented Thanksgiving and were eating turkey. Putting aside the obvious fact that the Pilgrims did many things that we wouldn’t want to do now (and that we want to do many things they didn’t), the turkeys we eat have about as much in common with the turkeys the Pilgrims might have eaten as does the ever-punch-lined tofurkey. At the center of our Thanksgiving tables is an animal that never breathed fresh air or saw the sky until it was packed away for slaughter. At the end of our forks is an animal that was incapable of reproducing sexually. In our bellies is an animal with antibiotics in its belly. The very genetics of our birds are radically different. If the Pilgrims could have seen into the future, what would they have thought of the turkey on our table? Without exaggeration, it’s unlikely that they would have recognized it as a turkey.”
And what would happen if there were no turkey? Would the tradition be broken, or injured, if instead of a bird we simply had the sweet potato casserole, homemade rolls, green beans with almonds, cranberry concoctions, yams, buttery mashed potatoes, pumpkin and pecan pies? Maybe we could add some Timucuan bean soup. It’s not so hard to imagine it. See your loved ones around the table. Hear the sounds, smell the smells. There is no turkey. Is the holiday undermined? Is Thanksgiving no longer Thanksgiving?
Or would Thanksgiving be enhanced? Would the choice not to eat turkey be a more active way of celebrating how thankful we feel? Try to imagine the conversation that would take place. This is why our family celebrates this way. Would such a conversation feel disappointing or inspiring? Would fewer or more values be transmitted? Would the joy be lessened by the hunger to eat that particular animal? Imagine your family’s Thanksgivings after you are gone, when the question is no longer “Why don’t we eat this?” but the more obvious one: “Why did they ever?” Can the imagined gaze of future generations shame us, in Kafka’s sense of the word, into remembering?”