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Roasting Tom

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Thanksgiving is one of the few occasions on which I voluntarily tangle with a turkey.

Even then "it isn't the kind with the gobble in it," as my four-year-old niece once explained. She wanted to make it abundantly clear that the bird her mother was stuffing for the festive table was not suffering the ultimate indignity, otherwise I might get the wrong idea and phone the humane society.

I doubt it.

I do not have a whole lot of compassion for turkeys and the feeling is mutual. Ever since I was a little kid, their snapping black eyes peered at me with a mixture of anger and suspicion. In my estimation, turkeys were not the least bit pleasing to the eye and they had no admirable traits. The gobblers were cantankerous, the hens condescending. The natural diet of free-ranging birds was disgusting.

I was not in the least surprised when a bird book I acquired listed turkeys as first cousins of vultures. It confirmed my suspicions that the older, the smellier, the more putrid the carrion, the more a turkey's beak watered.

That's why it was the ultimate indignity to be chased by one. It was not just the anger emanating from his eye, or those massive wing bones threatening to break my skinny legs, or those vicious spurs itching to shred my back.

No sir, when a mean ugly old bird took off after me across the barnyard, I could easily make it over the fence with all of five seconds to spare. What I could never outrun, however, was the thought that somewhere in that red, wrinkled little head of his, that old turkey was repeating over and over to himself, "Go get her! She's rotten to the bone, rotten to the bone, rotten..."

It undermined my self-esteem, that's what it did. And then to think that same old turkey had the audacity to strut piously around the barnyard with tail spread wide. I always had an urge to hold a mirror up to his evil eye and show him the view from behind. Being a turkey, it wouldn't have deflated his ego one little bit.

Nothing deflates a turkey. He is simply hatched too big for his britches. Pluck off his feathers and he's still too big for the roasting pan. Round up all the appetites I can find, and he still wins, even on overtime. And so I'm left with the remains of an arrogant bird whose carcass won't fit the soup pot and whose outlook is jaded before he is even butchered, much less a week later.

Perhaps there is a plausible explanation. Scientists claim turkeys descended from dinosaurs. I'm glad they use the term "descended." I have a hard time believing turkeys are an improvement on anything. And any bird with genes dating back before the ice age is bound to be tough. Cooking an old tom used to take longer than firing up a kiln of bricks and the results were about the same -- not a whole lot of juice.

I have to concede modern technology has managed to tenderize turkeys to the point where home economists actually believe it's possible to roast a big, succulent bird. This year will be my 55th attempt, and as I wrestle another big, unwieldy vulture into the oven, I can't helping thinking tradition has it all backwards.

The pilgrim fathers shouldn't get credit for the first Thanksgiving at all. I think the pilgrim mothers simply issued an ultimatum. "You either get rid of all those big dry tough gobbley birds or we'll sail back to England in the morning." Whereupon the pilgrim fathers called a hasty conference and duly butchered every turkey within a 50-mile radius of Plymouth Rock. In heartfelt gratitude, the pilgrim mothers, bless their hearts, made one last feast to celebrate the extinction of the species and dubbed it Thanksgiving.

In one of those ironic twists that fate sometimes hands us, the occasion did not mark the end of an era at all. It initiated a tradition, a tradition so deeply ingrained into the fabric of North American culture that to denigrate the turkey as a festive bird is to be accused of culinary treason. And who among us has the courage of our convictions, especially when carving knives are poised for action all over the country?

Not me.


Alma Barkman is a Winnipeg freelance writer,

photographer and homemaker.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J6

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