Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mustapha Mond & The Turkey Button:My Brave new World

There’s a new meme going around the foodie circles: turkey is bad.

People only eat it once a year – they choke it down at Thanksgiving along with the fruitcake and the minced yams in a perverse attempt to actually climb inside a Norman Rockwell painting and live there. They’d be better off dressing their kids in boy and girl scout uniforms and having them say the pledge of allegiance in front of the liberty bell, or letting some avuncular doctor put a stethoscope to their doll’s chest. In real life, turkey is stringy(white meat) and greasy (dark meat) and you’d be much better off with a veal chop.

I resent this new dogma because I’ve always loved turkey. It’s the perfect poultry: more savory than chicken, less fatty than duck, less gamey than goose. And it extends itself beyond the holiday, into sandwiches and hash and dinners reheated in the left-over gravy and then finally, after thirty hours of slow simmering reduction – soup! That veal chop is gone the next day. And I eat turkey more than once a year. I have it on Christmas, also – and any other day, as often as my family permits. Someone else must be doing that also – there are always Butterballs in the grocery. Not that I buy factory turkey – we get ours from a little farm in Vermont. There are no weird hormones and anti-biotics in the feed, and no creepy little button on the breast to tell me when the bird is done. I was talking to my mother about this yesterday, over another sublime turkey dinner “(The best one ever!,” she enthused, as she has every year since I was old enough to eat solid food), and she has a theory to explain the turkey haters.

It’s the button.

The button pops when the turkey is over-done. So people have gotten used to over-cooked turkey, with its tendency to fall apart when you lift it from the pan and its dry breast meat. Why does the button work this way? For safety, for security, for uniformity: to avoid law-suits and to standardize the cooking experience to extract faulty human judgment from the process. I prefer Erma Rombauer’s guideline of fifteen minutes a pound, an experienced eye and (in the last resort) a meat thermometer.

But the button bothers me. It’s like the single serving coffee machine in my insurance agent’s office. It makes ‘perfect’ coffee every time: perfectly consistent, that is. The machine looks cool with its blue back-lighting, it’s easy to use and it’s kind of fun. There’s just one problem with it: the coffee is weak. It produces a baseline average of what most people probably like and the result is bland and watery. It makes you want to dump a heap of fresh-ground coffee into a pan of boiling water, the way the cowboys did … or, failing that, get a French press.

The machine is a metaphor, just like the button, a synecdoche for the larger society with it’s meticulously unadventurous school curriculums and toxic fertilized lawns, its cookie cutter housing subdivisions, its machine-processed pop songs, action movies and romance novels.

Maybe it’s all about comfort. I think of the great argument between John Savage and Mustapha Mond, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Mond explains this theory in detail – a happy population requires drugs (theirs is called soma) and immersive films (feelies) and comprehensive brainwashing from an early age. John Savage prefers to remain sober; he chooses Shakespeare over the feelies and wants the right to be ecstatic – or miserable. The narcotized middle ground doesn’t interest him.

Mond’s response – you want that stuff? You’re welcome to it. And he exiles Savage to an island.

From my own island, where narrow cobble-stone streets unravel into sterile subdivisions and each new building,( like the renovated and expanded airport, or the police and fire department fortress going up on Fairgrounds Road), diminishes the beauty and charm of an historic village thirty miles from shore, I side with John Savage, even when I’m lost in the moors at dusk, running low on gas and praying for some sign of that over-development everyone’s complaining about. As we inch ever closer toward Huxley’s prescient dystopia, I’ll take my stand for mess and rough edges.

John Savage says, “I don’t want comfort. I want god, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Sounds good to me, but my list is a little longer. It includes strong coffee, weedy lawns and Christmas turkey, cooked right.


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