Turkeys Are Our Friends

Humans are funny birds. We get so wrapped up in habits, comfort zones, and traditions that sometimes we forget who we are, what we care about, and why we even do what we do. Thanksgiving is one such instance, sadly exemplified by its alternative name: "Turkey Day." Thanksgiving is meant to be a day when we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, pause in gratitude for the abundance most of us experience, and share what we have with others. Most people don't stop to think about the nearly 300 million birds that are killed each year in the United States, just to satisfy our taste buds. Of this number, 45 million are killed for Thanksgiving alone.

As someone who teaches vegetarian cooking classes, I've seen many people turn away from meat, dairy and eggs and embrace the array of delicious, nutritious plant-based foods available to us. I've also seen them change the lens through which they view the world, which I think is critical for shedding the comfort zones of the past and creating new ones. Some people have a real fear that they will no longer have satisfying, filling meals -- especially on Thanksgiving. I can say with confidence that they can put their fears to rest.

Our Thanksgiving feast every year is full of comfort foods galore, prepared with organic ingredients from local farms: mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, bread & nut stuffing, mashed rutabagas, cranberries with pecans, stuffed acorn squash, corn bread, Brussels sprouts, corn, peas, pumpkin pie with cashew cream, and apple pie. This was our menu last year, and I'm sure I've left something out. Indeed, there is no dearth of food on our table on this special day, as we share it with our closest friends and family.

For those who have never met them, turkeys are magnificent animals, full of spunk and spark and affection, with individual personalities and charms. These animals, who have been abused and discarded by human beings, whose beaks and toes have been mutilated, and whose genetically overgrown bodies are susceptible to heart disease and leg deformities, still display immense affection towards humans. They are incredibly curious and follow you wherever you go, and their wonderful vocalizations include an array of clucks, purrs, coos, and cackles.

Turkeys love to be caressed, and people often remark that they respond just like their own dogs and cats. Turkeys even make a purring sound when they are content, and not until you've had a hen fall asleep under your arm have you lived. She will literally melt under your touch, relax her body, and begin to close her eyes, softly clucking all the while. It's a sight to see, and I'm moved every time I have the privilege to witness it.

Some turkeys are more affectionate than others, climbing into your lap and making themselves as comfortable as can be. At an animal sanctuary I frequent, a particularly friendly turkey became known for her propensity to hug. As soon as you crouched down, she would run over to you, press her body against yours, and crane her head over your shoulders, clucking all the while. It's amazing how so generous a hug can be given by something with no arms.

They're not all saints, but some are heroes. One turkey became my personal protector when I was trying to clean a barn and was continually accosted by a particularly rude and aggressive bird. Each time the aggressor would begin to close in on me, my hero would waddle over and get between me and his barn-mate. It was remarkable, and it happened over and over (turkeys are very persistent). What made this scene even more touching was the fact that these toms suffered from bumble foot, abscesses on the footpads that resemble corns, a common occurrence in domesticated turkeys. Between their grotesquely large breasts and inflamed feet, turkeys walk very awkwardly and with a lot of effort. I was very touched that such an effort was made on my behalf.

I grew up eating turkeys' breasts, turkeys' legs, and turkeys' wings, and I'm still making amends to these extraordinary animals. I believe we're able to mutilate certain animals for our gustatory pleasure because we don't have relationships with them. We've never meet them face to face. Once I met a turkey, I was never the same again. Once I began to celebrate Thanksgiving as turkey-free holiday, I learned for the first time what "Happy Turkey Day" really means.

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