A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “Talking Turkey,” 21 November 1986

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21 November 1986

by Brad Beckman


Something about the sanctity of the Thanksgiving tradition is violated by an inflated and grossly obese gobbler being towed down Breadway. When was it, I wonder, that the Plymouth colony’s day of grace did embrace this air of display. A day set aside to give thanks to our Lord should retain a much more unsullied nature. But, upon recollection, it occurs to me that the purity of my own vision of the pilgrims’ plenty was tainted at an early age. My mind drifts backward to that horror of horrors – the second grade play.

I was one of the unlucky ones and played a lowly spud, bound for the most part to the oversized cornucopia that dominated our stage. As it happened I was glad to be a potato, which at least has some dignity, instead of a carrot or onion which are definitely legumes of a lower order. Appropriately, I thought, Marsha Donnely was a squash and my stout friend Wally Sims was a pumpkin. The coveted roles or turkey and venison carcass were given to Miss Allen’s favorites.

Miss Allen was our music teacher and memory tells me that her talents as a choreographer were somewhat lacking. To her credit, though, I must say that not since have I seen a singing and dancing collection of vegetables, turkey and venison carcasses, with assorted pilgrims and Indians. Our theme was, of course, the day in question a dramatization of the event itself and a smattering of the history that led to its becoming a national holiday. Our speaker was an overactive, lour-voiced boy named Thomas Nahblong. He, looking a great deal like John Adams with a swarthy, Pocahuntas-like squaw on his arm, pontificated lengthily on the wonders of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth who, in 1621, proclaimed the first day of thanks. “And onward through history” bellowed Thomas, “did the different presidents similarly proclaim the day until 1941, by a joint resolution of Congress, Thanksgiving was made a part of our country’s constitution”.

Thanksgiving play by second graders

My word, what a mouthful. I’m sure Thomas felt the same though he did seem to greatly enjoy his sanctioned boister-ourness as though those were the few precious moments wherein he could legally yell back at the teachers. At the finish of our first and last performance the collected company did congregate at the front of the stage (the assembled tables of our cafeteria) in order to take its bow. Across the board parents were either brazenly appreciative or feigning to be so, of the weathered and regurgitated tale of Thanksgiving at a close for another year.

So I too have added an air of extravaganza to Thanksgiving and am not qualified to criticize these opulent, animal-image bellons just as I have no right to criticize anyone else’s second grade play. I must be content to scrutinize other aspects of the day of thanks. For instance, do we realize that at first of these ceremonious meals wild turkey and venison were the principle foods? This seems a bit odd since the day was organized to honor and thank our lord for bestowing upon us a bountiful harvest.

“Was the harvest good this year, Clem?”

“Yeah, the harvest was good this year, Louisa. Guess I better go out and shoot me a wild turkey so we can celebrate”.

It does make sense that our hard working pilgrim forefathers might have wanted to save the bulk of their rewards for a snowy day. But because of this, the turkey (now of domesticated stock) has become a permanent fixture of our Thanksgiving tables. I suppose we should be grateful that a side of venison has not done so as well for that would make our already crowded tables truly a mountain of food.

There are even some interesting tidbits that concern the turkey itself. Did we all know that Meleagris Gallopava (that’s turkey for you larmen) was given its colloquial name because it was erroneously believed to have come from Turkey? And while I have been known to call many people “turkey” for various reasons, Webster’s tells me that the primary slang usage of the word is usually in reference to an unsuccessful stage play. I wonder if Noah Webster was in the cafeteria analyzing the quality of my second grade performance in order to make so sweeping a statement. Let us not forget that in the great sport of bowling, three strikes in a row is “a turkey” though for what reason I would not venture to guess. And to “talk turkey” is to discuss a situation bluntly which seems an idiom completely out of place. I, for one, never thought of a turkey as a forthright and self-assured creature. But then perhaps that is why I did not receive the role in the second grade, Miss Allen thinking me too whishy-washy. And Miss Allen would not have been alone in finding this bald, gallinaceous bird a noble creature since Ben Franklin and others wanted the turkey and not the bald eagle to be our nation’s symbol. What would have happened in such a case? What would we be eating now for Thanksgiving dinner? Would people leave the worst stage show ever saying:

“Jeez, what a bald eagle”.

Upon re-thinking the matter, the history of Thanksgiving is colorful and celebratory enough to warrant a show within the bound of taste. Perhaps my second grade initiation into this carnival was not totally blasphemous. In fact it is something of a carnival simply to be involved with the meal at all. More than once do I remember my mother rising before the sun in order to start roasting the turkey. And the bustling about that is the hurried preparations of the food, the setting it upon the table, and the removing of the dishes after the meal seems all a great deal of pomp and circumstance for just one event. Not to mention the fact that soon thereafter much of the table goes to glue its many eyes on the all important game.

But like Thomas Nahblong’s mouthful or words on the history of Thanksgiving, mouthfuls of more tangible stuff make up the heart of what is the day of plenty. Thank goodness that we do not completely mimic the pilgrims’ first ceremony and have the celebration last three days. Experience tells me that it will be hard enough when Thursday next we revelers shall brace ourselves against the table, ready for that coming and terrible onslaught – the second helping.


Thanksgiving play/Five Hanks via Flickr, CC BY2.0. Partial face blocks supplied.
Wild turkey/US Fish & Wildlife Service, CCD BY2.0 via Flickr