If turkeys could ruminate philosophically, they wouldn’t have much to be thankful for as Thanksgiving approaches.
Thankfully, neither the brown- and bronze-feathered wild birds nor their pale domesticated cousins are overburdened with higher-order brain function. Anyone who has ever hunted wild gobblers knows they are wily critters, possessing a keen sense of survival. But unlike humans, turkeys are not cursed with the cognitive ability to regret the past or fret about the future.
Turkeys, like those mindful humans who chant and pace their breathing in meditative practices aimed at achieving nowness, live in the present moment. That is, until the nation’s giant food-producing industry begins readying for another Thanksgiving. And then, a Tom’s time on earth grows shorter than daylight in winter.
From the Civil War to the Cold War, some semi-lucky turkeys at least got their 15 minutes of fame before ending up being what’s for dinner. We’re talking presidential turkeys, the chosen few that end up in the kitchen at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington.
President Abraham Lincoln, who transformed the notion of being grateful for what we have into a national holiday that grew to become a time of feast and football, also had the distinction of being the first chief executive to receive a complimentary turkey from an appreciative citizenry.
In time, realizing that when you give you often receive, turkey growers or the lobbying groups that supported the turkey-growing sector, came to understand that when you present the president of the United States with a gratis turkey to grace the First Family’s Thanksgiving table, you get a lot of free ink and airtime in return.
As Texas prepared to celebrate its centennial in 1936, a turkey from McCulloch County made its way from Brady to the District of Columbia to provide a generous helping of white meat and maybe seconds for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. So far as is known, this Tom is the only beaked turkey from West Texas to reach the White House.
Rabid members of both political parties might argue that the Brady bird has not been the only turkey from Texas to go to the White House, but we’re talking Thanksgiving dinner, not politics.
Here’s how the Nov. 21, 1935 issue of the Texas Centennial Review reported the news about Brady’s briefly famous turkey:
“President to Get Brady Turkey
“Brady, Texas —There are turkeys—and then there are turkeys, but the one that will make the supreme sacrifice on the eve of Thanksgiving, after having been chosen to grace the table of the President of the United States on Thanksgiving Day, will be the most popular bird in all Texas—a martyr to the cause.
“This ‘fine feathered friend’ will represent the most perfect specimen of ‘Turkeydom’ in the vicinity of Brady and will be sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the compliments of that city.
“The title of ‘Texas Centennial Turkey’ will be bestowed upon the favored bird, who will act in the capacity of a pleasant reminder of the forthcoming Texas Centennial Celebration in 1936, as it graces the President’s table on Thanksgiving Day.
“The results of the county-wide ‘Turkey Derby’ will determine the selection of the prize turkey. Turkey raisers of McCulloch County are all astir over the possibility of having their respective gobblers judged the most perfect and being sent to the President.”
Unfortunately for this Mr. Tom Who-Went-to-Washington, the tradition of presidential pardons for White House turkeys had yet to be established. It can only be assumed that the turkey that gobbled its way to the nation’s capital from Texas traveled with only a one-way train ticket.
The prevailing view is that Harry S Truman was the first president to offer clemency to a table-bound turkey, but others say Lincoln emancipated a gift turkey before the first Thanksgiving Day in 1863. No matter when the tradition began, every modern president since at least John F. Kennedy has graciously given a second chance at life to the lucky bird that gets photographed by the news media while hanging out with the commander-in-chief the week before Thanksgiving.
Given that three Texans have been elected to the presidency since the days of Camelot, surely other Lone Star State turkeys have netted a free trip to Washington for a photo op. Of course, depending on one’s political persuasion, plenty of not-so-grateful Texans have wished they could give their president the bird.
Written By: Mike Cox