The most important part of the turkey is one we don’t eat at all.
Recently a friend revealed that they had never heard a chicken leg called a “drumstick.” That struck me as incredible until I considered how hard the western lifestyle has labored to divorce meat from any sense of a recognizable animal body. Cold cuts and the undifferentiated pink slime of McNugget manufacture keep us at a comfortable remove from slaughterhouses and the classical butcher’s shop, while the sight of a whole roast pig at a barbecue or a dressed duck in a Chinatown restaurant window take on a sort of morbid novelty. We’re even trying to grow artificial meat now, which aside from shortcutting ethical concerns about our treatment of the creatures we raise to be eaten would give us a way out of engaging with their icky anatomy. None but the strangest steak connoisseurs relish the image of the cow being murdered.
Thanksgiving is an exception to this modern discomfort with the bestial form as it presents in cuisine. While dismantling the bird is the fastest way to cook it, many families will insist on preparing and serving it intact, out of what seems a sense of aesthetic tradition. Why this insistence on the Rockwellian ideal? Could it be that the turkey in its wholeness — and readiness for disassembly — is a better symbol of the bounty for which we are so thankful? Does it better connect us to not-so-distant ancestors who had to raise and kill their food themselves? I suspect that we are also, perhaps above all, enamored of the spectacle that is the carving itself, the diplomatic negotiations for favored pieces, a fair and just apportioning of all that flesh.
And people know what parts they want, don’t they. They have a stated preference for white or dark meat, breast or thigh, something to be devoured off the bone or sliced with knife and fork. At Thanksgiving dinner, an occasion even better attuned to the sense of surfeit than Christmas morning is, we assert our personality through what we consume (as any vegan who has tried to sell their carnivore relatives on tofurkey has observed). We have opinions on how the best stuffing is made, visceral yeas and nays on cranberry sauce, and debate over how much gravy is too much, if such a thing is a possible. We have a good chuckle when the chef has forgotten to take the giblets out, and we put on a great show of disgust when our uncle eats the fatty tail, commonly known as the Pope’s nose, technically the pygostyle, a fusion of several tiny terminal vertebrae. In the end, we gladly share or jealously guard the best pumpkin pie recipe.
This is the true political landscape of a holiday with family, and not, as Jeb Lund observed in a Rolling Stone essay that railed against the abominable trend of fried turkeys, strained conversations about government with the nebulously racist relatives described in so many hack advice columns. Siblings instead argue for an hour about whether the turkey neck is a great comfort food or inedible. Parents become warring experts on tryptophan, the natural amino acid often blamed for sluggishness after the meal, though in fact there’s more tryptophan in chicken, and when we eat something rich in protein, not much of it can get through to the brain all at once, so it’s more likely we’re just get sleepy because we’re overeating and drunk.
And the most important, mystical part of the turkey is one we don’t eat at all — one that we imagine to be part of a distinctly western superstition which in fact goes back to ancient Europe. “The custom of snapping [the wishbone] in two after dinner came to us from the English, who got it from the Romans, who got it from the Etruscans,” as Mental Floss recounts. “A person will sometimes devote all his life to the development of one part of his body — the wishbone,” Robert Frost supposedly said, though for the life of me I cannot track down a source for this quote that is not some larger compendium of largely apocryphal quotes, or, in some cases, self-help books. The true name is the “furcula,” rather close to “fulcrum,” and Latin for “little fork,” and this meeting of clavicles is what makes the turkey’s skeleton “strong enough for flight.”
I recall only performing the wishbone maneuver, never whether I won or if the wish came true. There is only the tensile moment of the bone not yet cleaving, still resilient, like the body it belonged to has not already been torn limb from limb by a hungry horde. “Little fork” suggests this is an instant when two people part ways, one the winner, one unfulfilled, so no wonder it feels more of a piece with our late-stage capitalism than the offshoot augury of some distant peninsula. It strikes one as American because of the implicit fairness and opportunity: you’ve got a 50–50 chance, but it’s a zero-sum game, and there’s no actual skill to it; the outcome depends on the particular structure of a bone of the bird you just ate. The wishbone gives us biological fate in the guise of something more like luck. One person must win, one must lose.
Of course, the effects of that loss in this particular culture are not so simple as the absence of instant gratification, though that might be bad enough. The Simpsons in its third season gave us “When Flanders Failed,” among the series’ best moral fables, which begins with Homer Simpson’s relentlessly wholesome neighbor and therefore sworn nemesis Ned Flanders quitting his job to open a store called the Leftorium, which will sell left-handed appliances. At the same barbecue where Flanders announces this new venture, he and a clearly jealous Homer split a wishbone. When Homer wins, he secretly wishes to see Flanders quickly put out of business.
But instead of that wish merely coming true, Homer has to fulfill it himself, deliberately neglecting to mention the Leftorium’s existence to friends struggling with right-handed devices. By the time the Flanders clan is out on the street, Homer has realized that schadenfreude is no real joy in life and that he alone can undo the curse of his making (by spreading word of the store throughout town). The story puts torque on the proverbial wisdom of being careful what you wish for, revealing that someone else’s ruin can never be our own success, even in matters of direct competition. Likewise, reminders at grace of those without full plates cannot make us more grateful for what we have, but donating money to food banks for the homeless just may.
All that is to say, when you are in the position to wish on a wishbone, it means you aren’t starving. It means you have enjoyed the hearty feast of a tremendous fowl with people you love, and yet there is even more to hope for ahead. You could always climb higher. Life could always be sweeter. Maybe that’s why the wishbone has endured as a kind of unserious ritual, because in some way we recognize and want to mock the silly, idle greed behind it. Another year, another turkey fattened and slaughtered and defeathered and gutted and basted and browned, its skeleton picked clean on our table, and here we sit laughing as we crack the last flimsy bit of it apart, asking the universe for another favor. For the breath of time it takes to break the wishbone, we are touching the solid remains of all that has died to make us prosper.