I drove through Willmar, Minn., in 2011 and didn’t know how close I was to a piece of American history. “President pardons pair of Willmar, Minn., gobblers for Thanksgiving,” the Associated Press headline read. Willmar is apparently a big player in turkey production. Actually, the entire state is. Minnesota produces around 49 million turkeys per year, 10 million more than the next highest turkey producing state, North Carolina.
That’s a lot of giblets.
President Barack Obama pardoned the Thanksgiving turkeys Liberty and Peace (originally named something a bit more Midwestern, Ted and Ray) at the White House Nov. 23, saying that without his pardon, “they’d end up next to the mashed potatoes and stuffing.” Which is, of course, the natural order of things.
The turkeys were raised by Willmar High School FFA students Brianna Hoover, Brenna Ahlquist, Val Brown, and Preston Asche. The students chose Liberty and Peace out of a flock of 36 birds because these gobblers didn’t die of heart failure when the students tried to surprise them with camera flashes and cell phone ring tones.
After the ceremony on the White House lawn, the birds were moved to George Washington’s house in nearby Mount Vernon, Va., where they lived out the rest of their insanely short lives. This news set me back a bit, as it does every year, because of its abject silliness. Doesn’t the president of the United States have something better to do than not eat a turkey? You know, like shoot missiles at countries full of people who don’t think like us?
I’ve always wanted to hear a president say, “You know, this bird looks damned good. My fellow Americans, I’m going to eat it.” It used to happen.
The tradition of giving a live turkey to the president began in 1947 when the Poultry and Egg National Board presented a bird to President Harry S. Truman, who didn’t eat it. The tradition continued with President Dwight Eisenhower who, in a brilliant display of good sense (his mother always told him not to waste food), ate it.
Although President John F. Kennedy did not give his turkeys a “pardon,” he declined to eat them, sparing the last one on Nov. 19, 1963, just three days before his assassination. Attention conspiracy theorists, there must be a connection here somewhere. President George H.W. Bush began the tradition of “pardoning” the turkey in 1989, condemning these birds to a short, painful agonizing death.
Yes. Short, painful and agonizing.
Turkeys that hit the market 11 months out of the year average 25 pounds. Liberty and Peace were Thanksgiving turkeys, and weighed around 45 pounds apiece. Since Thanksgiving turkeys are raised with the express purpose of being fat, thus better prepared to fly off supermarket shelves, they are fed like an average American and suffer from obesity, and die in less than a year from heart disease. Turkeys – at least ones we don’t eat – have a life span of about 12 years.
Where’s PETA when you finally need it?
Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An Epic Beer Run Through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.