Quick: before you rush out to buy a plump Thanksgiving turkey, stuff it and then thrust into the oven; before you sharpen the knife to carve its moist meat, consider these numbers: 55; 704; 272; 28.2; 7.42; 3.55.
To put that bird on your table on Thursday (or any other day of the year), a complex, highly specialized, and brutally efficient industry has emerged since World War Two. According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), each of the nation's 55 turkey hatcheries -- located largely in the Midwest and South -- annually churns out upwards of 704,000 eggs. Once incubated and hatched, the more than 272 million poults are shipped to brooder barns and then growout installations where they mature; once they reach "slaughter weight," on average 28.2 pounds, they are then killed and brought to market. Their collective tipping of the scales amounts to 7.42 billion pounds of meat that generates $3.55 billion in sales. This is no backyard operation.
It became so high-tech as a result of a slick, non-stop "Eat More Turkey" promotional campaign that the National Turkey Federation first mounted in the late 1940s; its subsequent, breast-beating activities were boosted by millions of tax dollars flowing through the USDA to sponsor scientific research into the production, economics, and marketing of turkey to a once-indifferent American consumer.
Symbolizing the launch of this successful blitz was Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post (March 6, 1943) cover illustration, Freedom from Want. The centerpiece is a well-browned, succulent Large White Turkey (the dominant genetic type), set before a large white family, grinning and salivating. With peace would come a full stomach. Call it Drumstick Prosperity.
That the humble turkey represented a newfound taste for luxury is also a direct consequence of the radical transformation of the business of growing, slaughtering, and selling it. So effective were the producers' efforts that their fantasy of turkey meat becoming an "everyday food" came true. In a recent and shrewd essay, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point historian Neil Prendergast argues that the "domestic turkey's industrial rise made it possible for more and more Americans to eat a Thanksgiving turkey, helping them identify with the image's promise of consumer abundance."
This self-absorbed consumerism would have puzzled the Pilgrims. Their first thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621, to which we backdate our current extravaganza, was a decidedly humble and humbling affair. They had set aside this time to praise the divine for their hard-won survival after a rigorous climate, diminished food supplies, and debilitating illnesses had badly thinned their ranks; of the 102 colonists who sailed on the Mayflower, only 53 were alive a year later to give thanks; hardest hit were the adult women, of whom but four of 18 were left to help prep and cook the bounteous feast.
That intense level of mortality, known as the colony's history as the "starving time," sets the context for how Edward Winslow, one of the original company, described the low-key festivities in a place they called Plimoth Plantation. The primary author of A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England (1622), Winslow noted that with the "harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms."
Drawn to the activities were members of the Wampanoag people: "many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want..." After a year of considerable death, they gave thanks because they were alive.
Culled from the wild, the turkeys and venison and corn and fruit that these celebrants ate bound them to the land, a reflection of their intimate, ineluctable connection to its seasonal cycle of bounty and want. Even at this moment of gaiety and satiety, the English and Wampanoag knew that they would go to bed hungry during the long, dark winter to come. Theirs was no harvest of shame.
Ours are. Because industrialized agriculture has allowed us to break free from nature's cyclical hold on our appetite, we've gone corpulent. We've repeatedly skimmed off the fat of the land and slapped it on our bodies; our distended guts have become signifiers of our dangerous level of obesity (one third of adults and 17% of our children and adolescents are so afflicted). America the Bloated is a direct result of the global conveyor-belt flow of foodstuffs from factory farm to groaning table. We are what (and how often) we eat.
As a salubrious break from our waist-thickening behavior, as a chance to show our gratitude for having survived our gluttony, perhaps this Thanksgiving we should skip the bird and all its trimmings; even forgo the holiday meal. In short: fast.
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.
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