The beast that we ate

Americans celebrate it on the fourth Thursday of November while Canadians choose the second Monday in October for their harvest festival. We do it when and where it’s more convenient to get a few of the Cambridge crowd together, as close to the actual American holiday as possible. This year our Thanksgiving was celebrated on Saturday 27th of November in Amsterdam. And there was a beast on the menu.

We should all be thankful for science and technology on this holiday season. Indeed making those colorful and flavorsome thanksgiving main courses, side dishes and desserts would be considerably harder and time consuming if it weren’t for present-day ovens and convenient electrical appliances such as food processors and mixers.

Science can even provide a few tips and tricks to cook a turkey to perfection. One of the main difficulties of roasting a turkey is in the difference in fat content between its legs and breast. Because the birds mostly walk rather than fly, the muscle in the breast is not used much while the muscles in the legs and wings have plenty of proteins (essentially collagen) and fat. These proteins need to be cooked for a long time to break apart and give meat a juicy flavor. The lean breast meat, on the other hand, dries out if roasted for too long. Possible solutions to this culinary challenge include roasting the different parts of the turkey separately or putting ice packs on the breast before placing the bird in the oven to give the legs a head start.

But rather than being thankful for biochemistry and thermodynamics, I suppose that this year I should be thankful for genetics — although also a bit creeped out by its use. According to a 2008 Wired article, “Turkeys more than doubled in size” from 1929 to 2007. While the average bird used to weigh about 13 pounds (close to 6 kg) in 1929, today’s average turkey weighs close to 30 pounds, over 13 kg. In fact, some factory-farmed turkeys have become so large that they can barely walk let alone reproduce. However, their genetic information can still be passed on because of artificial insemination. It is using this technique that breeders make sure that some species of commercial turkeys are able to reproduce and that the poults carry the “size gene” inside them.

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Our bird was organic. So, at least, I find comfort in knowing that it was allowed sunlight and the space and freedom to walk and reproduce naturally. However, given that artificial insemination has been the norm in turkey breeding in the US since the 60s, I am guessing that the weight and physiology of an organic turkey are still influenced by it.

Therefore, although a smidgen reluctantly, I do have to be thankful to genetics for our 8.5 kg turkey. Indeed, if it weren’t for the large bird size, how could you stuff it with THREE other birds? “Turduckenridge”, or whatever name you want to call it, was the beast that we ate. Some of you may be familiar with “Turducken” — a turkey stuffed with duck, which is itself stuffed with chicken. While that was good enough last year, this time Lauren, our American master chef, decided she could make the main course even grander. Partridge was what the poultry man had available so there it went: inside the chicken, inside the duck, inside the turkey.

The final product was a beast. And it was delicious.

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