This is all you’ll get from me today, as the succulent and evenly-browned Mrs. Pax Arcana and I make our way to the fertile loam of the Garden State. I sent my Hungarian manservant ahead to forage for cranberries and wild stuffing.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. For one thing, it’s not specific to any religion, which means I don’t have to explain my Pastafarianism to anyone. For another thing, there’s no presents — which means I don’t spend the entire day in a button-down shirt with the cuffs barely past my elbows.
And then there’s the food. If you don’t like a feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, vegetable casseroles, cranberry sauce, and a panoply of dessert pies, then I say you are a fucking traitor to humankind who should be pulled apart by dogs.
Anyway, the greatest thing about the Thanksgiving meal is its purity of heritage. While the original Thanksgiving celebration featured more venison and fish than turkey and potatoes, the standard American Thanksgiving meal has remained consistent for generations. We eat the same turkeys, potatoes, and corn as our ancestors did from time immemorial.
Except not really.
Leave it to Wired to blow a gaping hole in that bit of self-mythology:
The traditional Thanksgiving dinner reflects the enormous amount of change that foods and the food systems that produce them have undergone, particularly over the last 50 years. Nearly all varieties of crops have experienced large genetic changes as big agriculture companies hacked their DNA to provide greater hardiness and greater yields. The average pig, turkey, cow and chicken have gotten larger at an astounding rate, and they grow with unprecedented speed. A modern turkey can mature to a given weight at twice the pace of its predecessors. In comparison with old-school agriculture or single-gene genetic modification, these changes border on breathtaking. Imagine your children reaching maturity at 10 years old.
We’re going to need a bigger children’s table.
Turkeys more than doubled in size in that time from an average of 13 pounds to an average of 29 pounds, and as seen in the chart above, show no signs of stopping. If the trend continues, we could see an average turkey size of 40 pounds by 2020. According to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, the largest wild turkey on record is 38 pounds.
Which leads us to a deep philosophical question: Can God make a turkey so big even He can’t brine it?
But all that bulk comes with consequences. Commercial turkeys can’t fly and researchers have even invented a way of quantifying how impaired the birds’ walking has become. The one-to-five scale ranges from “birds whose legs did not have any defect” to bowlegged birds who have “great difficulty walking.” After 30 years of breeding, Ohio State’s big birds average a three.
Here’s to swimmin’ with bowlegged poultry. Also, if turkeys were meant to be something other than dinner, I suspect natural selection would have made them
1) less delicious
2) able to fly
But that’s not all.
Turkey isn’t the only element of the iconic Thanksgiving dinner that science has given an overhaul. Corn breeding has made corn six times sweeter than the variations that the Pilgrims probably encountered back in 1620.
Pilgrims caught eating sweet corn were sentenced to 12 days in the stock and made to wear a scarlet C.
Retailer and food processor demands, rather than your fresh vegetable interests, play a major role in the evolutionary history of potatoes as well. Though they were not present at that original feast, they have been a major part of the holiday since Lincoln created it in the 1863.
Potatoes are now driven by a decidedly nonfestive activity: the making of French fries and potato chips. Almost a mirror of corn genetics, agronomists have ratcheted up the starch in potatoes and turned down the sugar, said Gregory Porter, a potato specialist at the University of Maine.
The potatoes at the original Thanksgiving would have been small and round and waxy. They also would have been used as false teeth, musical instruments, and cell phones. Don’t laugh, I’m serious. Have you ever tried to update your Facebook status from a potato? It’s almost impossible!