Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes, if this turkey tastes half as good as it looks, we’re all in for a very big treat. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
In a display of dominance, vengeful score-settling, control, contempt, threat, capacity for selfish inhumanity, lack of concern for consequences, and a suggestion of the depravity to which he is willing to sink, a corrupt guard pisses in the Thanksgiving gravy at a women’s prison. The gravy is intended to dress up the low-cost, leftover trimmings from a turkey factory—“a bag of turkey assholes,” as one inmate says. That’s the best Red, the Russian cook, can do. In her words, “The whole meal has to come in at a $1.05 a prisoner; taxpayers don’t give a shit if it’s a holiday.” The Thanksgiving feast in the first season of Orange Is The New Black goes beyond being a mockery: It’s a damn shame, as Red throws out the pee-poisoned gravy and doesn’t serve it. Meanwhile, Piper has been thrown in solitary confinement and served inedible Thanksgiving food in an attempt to break her spirit. It’s just another perversion of the Norman Rockwellian Thanksgiving tradition.
Tradition expects us to gather warmly together around a steaming, beautiful bird. That expectation is the perfect setup for a disappointing holiday, and the bird is an irresistible chance to demonstrate how far from perfect life is. There’s nothing like a symbol of forced merriment and the importance of appearing to be a normal family to bring out the best in a room full of screenwriters. Practically every episodic program has a take on the holidays and how the ceremonial turkey should appear, be presented, and be prepared.
What happens to the turkey is a gauge of how far off-track the holiday will get. And there are many possible methods to wreck a turkey. Cartoons probably take turkey abuse farther, faster, and weirder than any other medium. For example, characters can turn the turkey into a blowtorch riding on a skateboard until it rockets skyward and explodes, as in Regular Show.
Or there’s the option to get drunk on absinthe, agree as a family to become essentially a multi-person beard, and make the turkey central to a hallucinatory salute to My Neighbor Totoro, starring “Lance,” Bob’s doomed turkey companion (who is eventually shot “to death”) in a reliably inventive and nutty Bob’s Burgers Thanksgiving special.
And, of course, the dogs can get it. The loss-of-a-meal-to-a-dog trope is a quick, reliable way to get rid of a turkey for dramatic purposes, as happens in the the not-aging-well Mad About You Thanksgiving special, for example, where the animal handler can barely get the actor-dog to politely lick the clearly torn-apart-by-an-art-director bird. Fortunately, there exists a canonical dog-stealing-the-turkey moment that means no writer nor script doctor need type the words “dog eats turkey” into a script ever again. There can probably be no finer example of a canine-related turkey theft than the one that occurs in A Christmas Story.
“Sons of bichen—Bumpasses!” The sequence stands up to repeated viewings, like almost every sequence in A Christmas Story, thanks to the interplay between autobiographical essayist Jean Shepherd himself, as the narrator, who basically just comes out and tells us what’s going to happen to set expectations, followed by the merciless milking of the gag, topped off with a delightfully quotable performance. Presumably the whole moment should be undercut or even ruined by the going-to-make-you-laugh music, the clumsy direction (we never even really see the dogs grab the turkey itself), the dated look of the film, the predictability of it all, or the scenery-chewing acting of the late, great Darren McGavin. Almost all of those faults are present in the Mad About You dog-eats-turkey scene, in fact. And because the whole Shepherd movie is essentially an illustrated yarn, it’s more or less the cinematic accompaniment to one of his radio programs. There’s not even much of an attempt to show, rather than tell, that “it is well-known throughout the Midwest that the old man is a turkey junkie, a bonafide-golly turkicanis freak.” Yet somehow it’s a wonderful moment, the last word in the dog-stealing-turkey scenario, and the setup for one of the most uncomfortably racist gags in all of film (uncomfortable for many reasons but partly because the laughter within it is pretty infectious).
A fact about turkeys is that they are formerly living creatures into which the cook is obliged to ram his or her hand. It’s a little gross, sometimes either a little like a prostate exam or a little sexual (Dumb And Dumber To makes use of the latter, in a sort of horrible reverse on the scenario), and it’s too tempting to make fun of—whether it’s Roseanne, Marge Simpson, or even Mr. Bean appointed to do the mocking.
Also, occasionally, it appears that a fun way to desecrate the turkey is for people to wear one in a reverse-birth sequence. As famous as the Friends are for doing the bird-on-head bit, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean nails it. His slapstick makes it simple, undeniable, and for a brief moment, slightly alarming that he is becoming unborn into the turkey’s cavity. In fairness, the “thinking pose” that Joey and Phoebe strike is pretty awesome, possibly topping any single, specific Bean gag. But the tactile, fleshy ugliness of Bean’s decision to retrieve his lost item from the person-sized turkey—while keeping it family friendly, for the most part—is a bit of physical comedy not many would attempt.
Turkeys can also fail to cook on time. That’s what makes the gang so disgruntled on the well-loved Cheers special, leading to the food fight. Or they’re overdone, leading to the well-loved turkey explosion/implosion in Christmas Vacation. And so is born the turkey help line, the basis for one of the annually posted humor pieces on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
In the end, though, the violation of the bird is a writer’s playful yowl of impending emotional distress—the holidays are frequently a required collision of people who are all barely able to hobble through the motions. And it’s the differential that gets us: between what we think it should be like, how it looks when it’s portrayed in media, and how it usually feels; between our pleasant surprise when it happens to go well, and what actually ends up happening most years. The holidays play on our optimism: “Maybe this year,” we honestly convince ourselves. Maybe this year the dinner will feature witty, non-judgmental, two-way conversation, with the sun bathing everyone in a golden beam through a side window. Maybe.
The turkey is a centerpiece, and around it are many people who are on an emotional high-wire. Roseanne’s mom accidentally comes out around the turkey. The Simpsons turn in the worst prayer yet. Modern Family can’t shut up, subverting their own attempts at over-achievement.
And in the end it’s just fun to turn the delicious bird into an awful, horrible symbol of discord, disappointment, worry, and an implied condemnation of unquestioned rituals and dutiful conformity. Sometimes the presentation of the poultry feast (not just at the holidays, and not just turkey) is legitimately horrifying, but sometimes the horror becomes the most beloved misuse of turkeys of all time: a radio station promotion centered on ejecting turkeys from a helicopter to a crowd of onlookers in a mall parking lot, narrated Hindenburg-disaster style by WKRP In Cincinnati’s innocent newsman, Les Nessman.
As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could remain an unsullied holiday tradition.
Upcoming: All right, who took the last can of Who Hash?