Q: As we were eating our dinner Thursday, somebody asked whether we eat male or female turkeys. Also, how did turkeys become the centerpiece of the feast?
R.B., of Maryville
A: In our annual hunger to gobble up turkey (an estimated 16 pounds per American adult per year), we’re not terribly particular about the sex — although there seems to be a time and a place for each.
According to the University of Illinois Extension Service, the whole birds most people watch browning in their ovens are generally the female hens — especially if they’re the smaller variety (15-20 pounds). The larger male toms are generally processed into turkey sausage, franks, tenderloins, cutlets and those deli meats you often buy at $7 and more a pound. Considering the heaviest turkey ever grown was 86 pounds (a male named Tyson in 1989), a few of those could really help feather your nest — provided you avoid the bird flu, of course.
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As for how the turkey became top bird for the holidays (we eat 46 million at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and another 19 million on Easter), it apparently was largely a process of elimination. Back in the early to mid 19th century, folks were looking to regale their friends and family at a fall feast without busting their budget. For farmers, cows were more useful alive than dead, and city slickers couldn’t find much processed beef if they tried. Chickens were a possibility, but rooster meat was tough, and the hens were valuable for their eggs. There was always venison, but that meant taking time for a hunt. Ham and other brined meat weren’t considered proper for such a formal occasion. That left the poor turkey.
But there was a bit of national pride in the stuffing mix, too. When the journals of William Bradford, one of the Plymouth Colony pilgrims from 1621, was published in 1856, they were so warmly received that people began clamoring to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday. Since Bradford had written about how his colonists had hunted wild turkeys and since turkeys were native to the New World (remember that Ben Franklin once proposed it as the official American bird), it became the bird of choice — especially after Abraham Lincoln declared in 1863 that the last Thursday of every November be celebrated as a day of thanksgiving. (To help cash registers ring for Christmas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed that on Dec. 26, 1941, to the fourth Thursday.)
More interesting facts so you don’t look like a turkey the next time the subject comes up: There are approximately 8,200 turkey farms in the United States that raise roughly a quarter-billion birds per year. According to CNN, the costume Big Bird wears on “Sesame Street” is largely made of turkey tail feathers. Frazee, Minn., bills itself as the Turkey Capital of the World, and, to prove it, they erected a 20-foot-tall, steel-reinforced turkey in 1998 that weighs more than 5,000 pounds.
It’s actually the town’s second. People didn’t think the first one, erected in 1986, looked enough like a real one, so they took it down in 1998 — and accidentally torched it in the process, producing the most massive roasted turkey in history. (“Oh, the humanity!” as Les Nessman might have exclaimed.) See a picture at www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2130.
Q: While watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, I was wondering what happens to the hundreds of costumes, floats and balloons we see.
P.C., of Belleville
A: If you’re ever on the East Coast, you might want to see if you can sneak a peek inside the Macy’s Parade Studio, which is housed in a massive warehouse in Moonachie, N.J.
Opened four years ago, it may be the closest thing to a real Santa’s workshop because it’s there that a full-time staff of 26 designs the costumes, creates the balloons and assembles the floats that have delighted untold millions every year since 1924 (except during World War II). It’s also where the things that can be used for future parades are neatly hung, stored or packed away.
As you might imagine, it’s a year-round job.
“As soon as a parade is over, it’s like, ‘OK, lets get these ready for the next parade, because we’re on a clock here!’” studio vice president John Piper recently joked to amorq.com when asked about the careful deflating of the wildly popular balloons after their annual November outing.
It wasn’t always like that. At first, the balloons simply were released, so they floated upward for a while before bursting. But when a balloon wrapped itself around an airplane’s wing in 1932 and brought it down (The pilots weren’t hurt, but the Tom-Kat balloon didn’t make it.) Macy’s began taking more appropriate care of the helium-filled monsters.
Now, all parade entries come to life in the warehouse. For new floats, models are built from sketches before being turned into the real McCoy. Workers can call on everything from a library of reference books to a painter’s studio that has “every color in the rainbow plus two,” as head painter Beth Lucas likes to joke. The hardest part might be folding them up so they can be hauled through the Lincoln Tunnel en route to the Big Apple.
Originally made of a cotton fabric, balloons now are fashioned from a nonporous balloon fabric and have to be painted while inflated so the paint doesn’t crack. Although Macy’s won’t say, some estimate it now may cost upwards of $200,000 to bring a new balloon to life. The costumes stored in the warehouse are valued at more than $2 million. After a parade, the staff is left to deal with a mountain of wash — especially the super-expensive Santa and Mrs. Claus outfits that are fashioned from boiled wool and kept in a specially made cedar closet.
So from midnight to 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving, the floats are reassembled, the balloons are inflated and a team of 200 fitters dress 2,000 balloon handlers, 400 children, 300 float escorts and 900 clowns.
“It’s the closest to magic time as you can get,” Piper said of the frantic last-minute preparations.
Then, a few hours later, they started preparing for 2016. For an inside look, see amorq.com/open/2181.
How did the turkey get its name?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: Remember when people would complain about airplane food (when airlines commonly served meals)? Turns out that it isn’t the food but the noise that often brought the taste in for a crash landing on our palates. In a recent study, 48 people sampled tastes in both a quiet room and one that sounded like an airplane cabin. Researchers concluded that the noise inhibited the ability to taste sweetness and saltiness while enhancing “umami,” the savory flavor found in such foods as bacon, soy sauce and tomato juice. The reason? The noise apparently affects a nerve in your ear that interacts with your sense of taste. Of course, the dry atmosphere and artificial pressurization don’t help.