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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Column: It’s time to take the turkey off the Christmas table

The modern turkey is an unfortunate abomination, reduced by genetic selection to a sedentary, corpulent creature that cannot naturally reproduce.

Frank Armstrong

REMEMBER THIS TRADITIONAL Christmas verse?

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do

If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

Disparaged by chefs who know a thing or two about food, the turkey remains a fixture at most Christmas dinners. But close scrutiny might lead us to remove it from the feast.

Many will say that without that profusion of meat the occasion would not be the same. That attitude is quite understandable; the Christmas dinner is one of the few occasions when most Irish people make a big effort to produce a meal from fresh ingredients and even dust-off homespun recipes. It is seen as a time to reaffirm family ties. To take the turkey out of the mix seems curmudgeonly.

Indeed, it is almost heretical to suggest it and I anticipate legions of people complaining about this article. That goes to show how, in an apparently post-religious society, sacred cows still abound. Families could even fall out over the issue but sometimes old ways have to be abandoned to let better practice emerge. We must have the courage of our convictions.

Yes, turkeys have been bred so they can’t have sex

The modern turkey is an unfortunate abomination reduced by genetic selection to a sedentary, corpulent creature that cannot naturally reproduce. Yes, turkeys have been bred so they can’t have sex. Fortunately there are still heritage turkeys but only 25,000 of them compared to a 200 million global population of the eunuch strain. Organic and free range turkeys may be better treated and fed but are still genetically enslaved. That is not what I call a sustainable resource.

Though first popularised by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, its presence at the Christmas dinner table in Ireland only really goes back to the post-Second World War era. Until that time beef or goose was on the menu. It is far from a timeless tradition.

The display of the New World bird might be interpreted as a form of homage to American largesse in the wake of the Marshall Plan. It also evokes a former time when food was scarce. The giant turkey was a sign of plenty and generosity. It marked the occasion of Christmas as something special, a loading up of calories before the hard months ahead when neither plant nor animal life offered much. Today, turkey consumption at the time of the solstice is really a pagan worship of the US model of food production that is spreading around the world. Burn the idols, I say.

We now live in a time of unheard-of abundance when one third of food is thrown away. We should endeavour to purchase food that we really appreciate. Turkey is extremely wasteful. In most families the oversized bird lingers in the fridge, the elders painfully discuss what to do with it, devising never quite satisfactory dishes before someone surreptitiously disposes of the corpse. Everyone is relieved.

Some traditions are worth changing

Why not try goose this year? It’s smaller and sustainable. Or, better still, a meat-free Christmas dinner which would be less demanding on planet and digestive systems. If well–prepared it should even taste better.

Some traditions are worth changing. On Easter Island trees were cut down in order to construct large fearsome statues. These are remarkable artefacts and a significant cultural achievement, but the removal of so many trees plunged Easter Island into an ecological catastrophe. Someone really ought to have persuaded the tribal elders to be a bit more careful, but hey, they were just doing things in a traditional way.

I do feel sorry for turkey farmers who attempt to produce meat in a manner that doesn’t involve the sustained torture of battery farming, but equally I am sure there are many honourable opium farmers in Afghanistan and that doesn’t mean we should support that form of agriculture. The turkey is not native to Ireland and rarely contributes to the ecosystem.

The great gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said: ‘Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are’. If he is to be believed we might take on the characteristics of a sexless, obese bird after gobbling down Christmas dinner. That would be fowl, which is why I am happy to ruffle a few feathers.

Post-Script: Since writing this article a potential family breakdown has been averted by the discovery and purchase by my father of traditional bronze turkeys in Ireland which live 24 weeks as opposed to the usual 13/14 weeks. Most importantly they can have sex and don’t gain weight like American teenagers. Well done to Termofeckin Delicious. I will still, however, be conjuring a delicious vegetarian meal to rival the traditional fare.



Frank Armstrong is a food writer and lecturer at University College Dublin’s Adult Education Centre.

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