1. Desiccated turkey, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
As Thanksgiving approaches, self-styled culinary experts are reviving the annual debate over how best to prepare a turkey. But while the Rachael Rays and Alton Browns of the world provide helpful pointers for hapless cooks, pop culture often comes at it from the opposite angle: demonstrating what not to do. The writers of Christmas Vacation understood that the bulbous, unwieldy form of a turkey lends itself to a comedic and/or violent cameo—turkey is nature’s sight gag. The bird that features in the movie’s family dinner looks like it came straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, baked to a glistening golden brown. But that’s the thing with turkey: It’s not really clear how it turned out until that first cut. In this case, Clark Griswold’s first stroke of the carving knife causes the main course to collapse in a wheezing puff of steam and vaporized fowl, with all the meat dried out beyond recognition. “I told you we put it in too early!” sobs cousin Catherine—yet another in a long line of cooks vexed by this temperamental bird.
2. Scientifically enlarged turkey; Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989)
While the shrink ray gets the title treatment in this Rick Moranis vehicle, the contraption actually starts out as an enlargement ray. It’s only through an accident of fate that the ray has a miniaturizing effect, reducing Moranis’ children and the neighbor kids to a quarter-inch in size. The shrinking function is handy if you’re looking to create a premise for wholesome high jinks, but the closing scene of the movie indicates that the enlargement ray could be used to greater ends, namely eliminating world hunger. As the proceedings draw to a close, the film’s two families gather at the Thanksgiving table around a mammoth turkey that could feed dozens. This would seem to be a society-changing breakthrough, yet Moranis’ character keeps this innovation to himself. So instead of solving one of humanity’s greatest problems, the enlargement ray ends up as fodder for a lousy sequel.
3. Frankenturkey, Bone Chillers (1996)
For three months in 1996, ABC decided to try its hand at a young-adult horror series along the lines of the already successful Goosebumps. Bone Chillers even had a similar literary provenance: The show was an adaptation of Betsy Haynes’ novel series of the same name. Structured around four freshman at Edgar Allen Poe High School—including Linda Cardellini in her first credited role—the show’s fourth episode, “Frankenturkey,” centers on Thanksgiving and the gang’s efforts to save Gobbles the turkey from being plated and presented the following day. Naturally, the best way to accomplish this was to construct a decoy turkey from a store-bought Butterball and “junk from the hardware store,” which the kids try to animate with jumper cables and the help of the Igor-esque school cook. After they fail to play God, they toss the monster into a dumpster, where it’s later struck by lightning and brought to life. For the remainder of the episode, Frankenturkey terrorizes the school with his claws, his Freddy Krueger-like visage, and a horrible scream reminiscent of the sound a dying Tremor makes. Eventually, Frankenturkey is tricked into the oven and served as the holiday meal, which Gobbles attends in full pilgrim gear. Yes, the twist is that Gobbles is a cannibal. Sorry for the spoiler.
4. Turkey on the head, Friends (1998)
Although Thanksgiving was always Friends’ most important holiday, it was also the holiday where the characters tended to get into the most trouble, a tradition that extended into the show’s backstory. In Friends’ “The One With All The Thanksgivings Flashbacks,” a look at 1992’s holiday features Joey—a character so devoted to Thanksgiving food that he once devoured an entire turkey alone (and still had room for pie afterward)—as he takes a less serious approach to the main course by placing an uncooked turkey on his head. It’s all an effort to scare Chandler, but the prank proves to be more on Joey than Chandler, as not only is he unable to see or smell anything pleasant, he can’t get the bird off his head. This sets up one of the show’s greatest visual gags as Matt LeBlanc strikes a contemplative pose with (as Phoebe succinctly puts it) “your head up a dead animal’s ass.” Six years later in the episode’s present day, Monica replicates the gag in an attempt to cheer up Chandler, only this time getting much more positive results: She puts him so at ease he was able to say “I love you” for the first time. (Yes, the stunt also winds up terrifying Joey, but what goes around comes around.)
5. Role-reversal turkey, Looney Tunes (1949)
Early Looney Tunes cartoons excelled at absurdity, but they always had a solid storyline and a subtle lesson to teach—no matter how simple—that supported much of the ridiculousness. The slapstick-laden “Holiday For Drumsticks” is no exception. Daffy Duck, ragingly jealous of the attention and food lavished on his farm compatriot Thomas The Turkey, tells the turkey that he needs to stay skinny so he’s not killed and eaten on Thanksgiving. Daffy then proceeds to pig out as Thomas works out like a fiend and gets string-bean thin. At the end of the binge, Daffy’s hubris gets the best of him: As he flexes his meaty thighs and ample belly in front of the farmer, he ventures a boast: “Yeah, it’s a shame you can’t eat duck on Thanksgiving.” The farmer grins devilishly and suggests otherwise by chasing Daffy around the homestead with an ax and a shotgun. In the end, everyone loses: Even though Daffy ends up in the oven, he foils every attempt to light the fire beneath him, thus ruining Thanksgiving for the farmers.
6. Jive-talking turkey, A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
The most joyous of Jim Henson’s made-for-TV holiday celebrations hides a dark secret: For a good third of its running time, The Swedish Chef seeks to serve Big Bird for Christmas dinner. It’s not that the Chef has a beef with the “gobbla gobbla humonga”—it’s just that the turkey that’s actually supposed to feed the assembled casts of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street hornswoggled him. As performed by Steve Whitmire, the turkey is a smart-ass con-bird who flimflams his Swedish adversary, ignores words of warning from Gonzo The Great, and eventually moves in on Gonzo’s main squeeze, Camilla The Chicken. Fortunately, a round of “The Christmas Song” from Big Bird prompts a last-minute menu change, but the turkey still pays for his deception in the end: The way he’s framed during the special’s sing-along coda, it looks like Whitmire’s bird is being roasted like chestnuts over an open fire.
7. Deep-fried turkey with side of shoes, salt, and lawn; Gilmore Girls (2002)
Deep-fried turkey isn’t really a big deal anymore, but it was in 2002, when it popped up on Gilmore Girls’ “A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving.” Jackson Belleville, husband to Melissa McCarthy’s Sookie St. James, persuades Sookie to let him fry their “beautiful, expensive, organically grown” gobbler for Thanksgiving dinner, only to have the whole front-yard, family affair devolve into a drunken game of “What else can we throw in this boiling oil?” As Sookie watches and gets progressively drunker, the Belleville clan fries up everything from salt to napkins to shoes. The gang even catches the yard on fire, but not before cousin Phil breaks the salad bowl Sookie brought back from Belgium. Ah, family.
8. No turkey, A Christmas Story (1983)
A Christmas Story may be perfect for drowning out the silence during family holiday gatherings, but it also serves as a user’s guide for surviving the holidays in general. Thinking of licking a flagpole in the dead of winter? Think again. Want a BB gun for Christmas? Expect plenty of ocular-related pushback. Hoping to impress the “turkey junkie” husband with a perfectly cooked bird? Don’t leave it unattended—especially if “hillbilly” neighbors own approximately “785 smelly hound dogs.” Yes, the infamous hounds put a serious crimp on the Parker family’s dinner plans after somehow gaining access to their house (accompanied by appropriately zany music) and tearing their turkey to shreds. Old Man Parker gets off one parting shot (“Sons of bitches! Bumpuses!”) before taking the family out to eat at a Chinese restaurant. It’s there that a cherished holiday memory is born, complete with a smiling duck, a rousing version of “Deck The Halls,” and some family-friendly cultural stereotyping.
9. Inflatable Nikey turkey, Saturday Night Live (1990)
The fake commercials and other pre-taped segments have long been the best part of Saturday Night Live. That’s become obvious over the past eight years of Lonely Island shorts, but it was just as true 20 years ago, when the show’s writers were equally likely to put a lot of effort into designing and executing a pre-taped-ad gag—and then get out quick before beating it to death the way they did with the live skits. There are a couple of different ideas packed into SNL’s ad for an inflatable turkey with built-in pump: Chris Rock’s rap narration and the vivid costumes and colors recall 1990’s hugely popular The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, while the idea of inflatable technology as the ultimate sign of quality comes from the contemporary craze for Reebok’s pump-up athletic shoes. What the Nikey turkey ad fails to acknowledge is that it doesn’t matter how big that turkey gets; size won’t help it “feed this crowd.” It’s going to pop the second someone sticks a knife into it. But the ad isn’t really trying to sell a family dining experience. It’s just setting up the pointed tagline: “If it doesn’t say Nikey, it’s not a turkey.”
10. Trashcan turkey, Streets Of Rage 3 (1994)
In the early 1990s, the urban landscape of America was rife with common thugs who were in sore need of a firm punching (and perhaps a touch of roundhouse kicking). At least, that’s what it seemed like for video game players when the “beat ’em up” genre was at its peak. But the heroic vigilantes who starred in these games couldn’t sustain themselves on righteous anger alone. They needed some heartier fare to keep them going. Fortunately, the urban landscape of America was also apparently rife with hidden foodstuffs in the early 1990s. In Streets Of Rage 3, for instance, kicking over a stray traffic cone might reveal an apple that would restore a fraction of your health. The real prize, though, was a turkey, which was liable to emerge after destroying one of the many crates and trashcans that dotted the game’s levels. Yes, the instruction manual claims it’s a chicken, but onscreen this feast looks more like a big, lovingly trimmed Thanksgiving turkey, with that special aroma you can only get from solid waste.
11-plus. Talking turkeys, marital-fidelity turkey, and more; The Simpsons (various years)
Over the course of 24 complete seasons, The Simpsons has periodically touched on the idea of a family gathered around a well-browned turkey, the same way it’s mined virtually every other familiar and iconic American image, reference, or idea. But just as the show uses all those iconic elements to explore its themes, turkeys in The Simpsons get prepared according to their metaphorical value. For instance, the turkey is a symbol of Homer’s incompetence via the Turkey Spray À La Poorly Used Electrical Carving Knife recipe. It’s a symbol of his greed, in the Monkey Paw Turkey Wish Sandwich. (Warning: turkey prepared via ironic punishment-metaphor story may come out a little dry.) And it’s a symbol of his loyalty, there’s the Well-Stored Turkey With Martial Fidelity in ”The Last Temptation Of Homer.” (Recipe: Order one cooked turkey from hotel room service. Drop turkey behind the bed. Return some unspecified period of time later to retrieve and eat turkey. Serve with song: “Oh Margey, you came and you found me a turkey / On my vacation away from work-y…”) Or the classic turkey-LSD combo in “Homer Loves Flanders.” It tells you when it’s overdone! The least-recommended Simpsons turkeys are the ones without a side of symbolism, though, like the creepy Professor Frink Turkey in Halloween-special “Island Of Dr. Hibbert” sequence. That just shouldn’t be.