Strutting with the Turkeys
Turkey is a word plump with paradox for Americans. A turkey can be the culinary focus at a grateful celebration or a luckless loser. Turkey is an ambiguous word that draws powerful positive and negative images. Its origin is no less ambiguous, stemming from either the Native American firkee, for the wild bird, or from the Asian Indian word for peacock, tuka.
As the traditional main course of our modern holiday feasts turkey probably doesn’t go back to the Pilgrims. Contemporary reports of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 are unclear on whether the Pilgrims shared turkey with their Wampanog guests. To prepare for the big meal the settlers sent “four men fowling.” The four brought back a good haul, but the colonists called all hunted fowl turkeys, including ducks, geese and quail. They may have shot a few gobblers, but maybe not. Hunters today will agree that bagging a wild turkey is no easy feat. Author G.T. Klein wrote that the American turkey is "wild and wary to the point of genius.” It’s easier to shoot ducks than geniuses.
The meal did not include anything like the domestic variety of turkey on which we gorge ourselves today. Nor was there any potato, considered poisonous at the time, or dairy products, as no cows arrived on the Mayflower, or bread, cookies or pies — wheat and sugar being scarce.
Never the less, Miles Standish and the Pilgrims had a prosperous first harvest. After surviving the loss of over half of their numbers in their first New England winter, they had much to be thankful for. They invited the chief of the Wampanog tribe, Massaoit, and his guests to a harvest feast.
I’m sure the Pilgrims thought they had enough to feed everyone, but as if to prove that some things never change, Massasoit showed up with over 90 of his closest friends and relatives. To feed everyone for the whole three day feast the Wampanog braves went out and bagged a few deer and picked up some corn and pumpkins back at the lodge. The first Thanksgiving was a pot luck affair. There may or may not have been a turkey in the pot.
The celebration did, however, include “the exercise of arms” or what they would call a “turkey shoot” in rural North Florida.
A well known scrap of American history trivia is Benjamin Franklin’s preference of the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the national bird. Had Ben gotten his way, patriotic deference would probably have prevented stamping the other side of the vernacular coin. A bad play or musical might not be known as a turkey. Casino employees would not risk immediate dismissal, as they do now, for saying the word turkey in earshot of a customer. If the national bird were the turkey, flops, duds, boobs and losers might be called eagles today.
Less well known is why Franklin preferred the wild turkey over the eagle. Eagles, after all, are pretty snappy birds. Steely eyed, swift, graceful, and heavily armed, they are formidable creatures — at first glance, a powerful national emblem. Franklin, the champion of thrift, hard work and fair dealing, saw through all the avian flash.
The eagle “…is a bird of bad moral character,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter, “He does not get his living honestly.” Old Ben was appalled by the eagles’ habit of mugging hard working fish hawks and swiping their catch. He observed correctly that the bird was too lazy to fend for itself, no better than men who “live by sharping and robbing.” No better than Congressmen for that matter.
“Besides he is a rank coward,” he added, noting that the tiny King Bird could attack and drive an eagle away without a fight. Franklin saw the wild turkey as a more suitable emblem for “the Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country… The turkey is … a much more respectable bird... He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."
Franklin would agree that our national character has come to resemble that of our national bird. Like thieving eagles, we take from those who work to reward those who vote. We mug future generations to feather our own nests with free medical care, free drugs, and cushy retirements. To filch a little oil, we attack defenseless peasants thousands of miles away and call it courage.
Had our national emblem been the occasionally “vain and silly,” but always brave, noble and honest wild turkey I wonder if we would have lost our respect for hard work, honesty, thrift and the real courage it takes to say no to whining factions and defend the farm. What would our nation be like if instead of soaring with the eagles we had chosen to strut with the turkeys? What would it be like if we chose to now?