Many, if not all, of us are now recovering from Thanksgiving feasting. This was my first time hosting, and as an aspiring locavore, I cooked a locally-raised, heritage-breed turkey. While some might spurn this as a movement-esque activity, as it doesn’t seem like active protest, ‘local food’ producers and supporters have drenched their actions in frames and rhetoric of improving environmental, social, and economic health, as well as in raising awareness of problems caused by corporate agribusinesses and compliant federal farm policies. As a social movement issue, ‘local food’ has its conceptual and tangible problems, but it also helps us to focus on questions about who is or is not an activist and what counts as activism.
I spent some time this Thanksgiving – while basting away – thinking on the symbolic national value of turkey and related turkey politics. Conventional wisdom has it that Benjamin Franklin had originally wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be America’s national bird. Today, about 40 million turkeys are raised and slaughtered for this holiday. Of course, the slaughter of these 40 million birds is something that animal rights activists would like to see the country go without, national significance or not. But what really gets me for its ironic value is the presidential turkey pardon. At this relatively recent ‘tradition’ – only a yearly occurrence since 1989 – the head of the National Turkey Association publicly gifts the president two turkeys. In a planned, camera-ready moment of ‘compassion’ (sponsored by those whose job it is to promote turkey consumption), the scripted pardon reminds me of the uncomfortable fact that we, as a nation, still have people, in addition to 40 million (minus 2) turkeys, on death row.
Thanksgiving and turkeys are big business. The choices about what to eat at Thanksgiving are more symbolically charged than other day-to-day eating choices. (I have a vegetarian friend whose aunt accused her of being ‘un-American’ for not serving turkey.) Irony over turkey’s symbolic value continues to resonate in the fact that most of these 40 million birds live pretty miserable lives (for the 4-5 months they live) and die pretty miserable deaths. Even if changes were made to improve their day-to-day lot, commercial turkey producers have crafted a breed so specialized that it cannot survive or reproduce without human assistance. As a recent Freakonomics episode reports, 100 percent of commercially-raised turkeys – the Broad Breasted White breed – are the product of artificial insemination. This is because they’ve been bred and genetically modified over the years to have such big white-meat breasts that male turkeys have become too big in front to mate on their own. Consumer choices have mattered for a recent surge of interest in locally-raised and heritage turkeys, supported by groups like Slow Food. Buying this and not that can signal a confluence of interests bundled up in a single act, offering perspective on movements’ strategic choices and missed opportunities in the ongoing work of ‘eating for change.’