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God Bless Butterball

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m sure you know about all the work the Pilgrims and American Indians had to do to pull off the first Thanksgiving (catching the turkeys, digging up the potatoes, cooking the cranberries etc.). Tops on the list of things I am thankful for when I say grace on Thanksgiving is the processed food industry that produced the Butterball Fully Cooked Baked Turkey, Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash frozen potatoes and Ocean Spray canned cranberry sauce that makes the Thanksgiving meal possible in this country of reheaters.

Let’s be realistic: For most Americans in the first decade of the 21st century poultry means only two things: original or extra crispy. Anyone who gives a person like that a 15-pound bird body along with sawed off neck and bagged vital organs and expects to get anything other than a look of horror and bewilderment is crazy – maybe even as crazy as the people who spend the one day they get off working at their chosen profession in November “playing” Rachel Ray. I, for one, am happy to leave the cooking to the professionals at Kraft, General Mills and ConAgra.

Considering that Americans now spend almost half of all their food dollars away from home, having a holiday focused on home cooking seems more than anachronistic – it’s masochistic.

If only traditional Thanksgiving foods were as easy to make as the traditional foods of the other big national holiday, the Fourth of July. I mean, who can’t buy a bag of potato chips and throw a few hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill? But Thanksgiving is a quinathalon of the world’s most difficult, unpleasant and time-consuming culinary tasks, including making gravy and pie crust. If you’ve ever tried to turn a pan of greasy turkey drippings into something people would feel enthusiastic about eating, you know what I mean. And did you know the term infinity was invented to describe the number of ways it’s possible to ruin a piecrust?

At first glance, roasting a turkey might seem comparatively easy. But since most people make one just once a year, nobody ever gets enough experience to be really good at it. Turkey’s long cooking time also makes it most unforgiving. Forget to turn the oven down at the right time (or worse yet, forget to turn it on at all) and, unless you’re capable of turning back the hands of time, it’s to Pizza Hut you go.

Of course, that’s assuming you’ve managed to figure out how to thaw the thing and stuff it without poisoning anybody. (Judging from the dire warnings nutritionists give about this, mishandling a bird would seem a very effective way to permanently eliminate a few unpleasant relatives from your Thanksgiving invitation list.)

That’s why I am thankful that the same military-industrial complex that has taken Americans away from the farms and the kitchens, and into factories and offices devoid of nature or her bounty have come up with food products to help us with this holiday. For instance, the canning technology that was created in 1809 to help save Napoleon’s troops from spoiled food was in 1922 also used to preserve a particularly large Massachusetts cranberry crop – thus giving rise to the annual argument over whether to serve chunky or non-chunky. Cans also save us from having to make our own gravy or peel and cook and spice our own pumpkin for pie.

Moreover, it was the rationing of cans during World War II that led to the popularity of frozen food as an almost equally convenient alternative – giving rise to frozen piecrust and pies; frozen, packaged turnip and squash; and that ultimate in food convenience, the TV dinner. TV dinner inventor Swanson won’t release sales statistics by the month but in a country whose most famous food holiday features turkey and stuffing I don’t think it’s an accident that the first and still one of the most popular Swanson TV dinner varieties is turkey.

Other food technologies developed to feed the troops overseas that ended up benefiting the home Thanksgiving feast include dehydrated instant mashed potatoes and Stove Top Stuffing.

And let’s not forget the advances in the bird itself. Where previous generations of meat processors only killed and plucked turkeys, the Butterball company has, over the years, added basting oil, a convenient carrying strap, a bag so you don’t have to touch the unsightly neck and giblets, and idiot buttons that pop up when the bird is done.

Realizing in 1981 that America’s home chefs needed even more help, Butterball launched a help line to answer consumer questions – thus setting a new standard in processed foods. Now any food worth buying comes not only with instructions, a consumer help line and a website but also the option to friend it on Facebook (thus making even solo Thanksgiving diners feel less alone).

Now that the refrigerator case is the fastest-growing part of the supermarket, Butterball sells a fully cooked chilled whole turkey, which most supermarkets will pack up in a kitty carrier type cardboard box along with trays of mashed potatoes and stuffing and containers of gravy and cranberry sauce from their deli case.

Heating and eating this delicious feast should take no more than an hour, leaving you plenty of time to sit around and watch all those Thanksgiving cooking specials on the Food Network.

Images: all images used by permission of the companies that make these products.

Carolyn Wyman About the Author: Carolyn Wyman is a Brown University-educated junk food journalist, historian and author. She has written six food books ("Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat," "Spam: A Biography," "Jell-O: A Biography," and “The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book,” among them) and reviews new grocery products in the nationally syndicated Supermarket Sampler newspaper column . Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe. She has discussed the Keebler Elves on NPR’s "Morning Edition," fed her famous "clothes dryer shrimp" dish to comedienne Rosie O’Donnell and once appeared in the National Examiner tabloid sitting in a shopping cart full of groceries. She writes, heats, eats and leads food history tours in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our country and Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks. Follow on Twitter @carolynwyman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. cmdrtebok 7:52 am 11/24/2011

    A respectable publication that claims to be scientific should at least get certain facts about history correct. “The Pilgrims and American Indians first Thanksgiving” is a story for children and didn’t happen. The first feast that could be called Thanksgiving happened in Jamestown where there were no Pilgrims. American Indians is condescending too, how would you like to be labeled with the name of your conquerors? I’m sure my Jewish family would love to be called Nazis. So please if you are going to talk about the “first thanksgiving” why don’t you mention the English Jamestown Colonists and the Tsenacommacah/Algonquins.

    The whole tone of this article is really sad though. You would rather sacrifice time with your friends/family/church/soup kitchen preparing a meal and working together for something amazing so you can sit and watch TV? I’m sorry.

    Link to this
  2. 2. night81 10:49 pm 11/24/2011

    This article is very sad and depressing. Processed food is generally low quality and unhealthy.

    Is this meant to be sarcastic?

    Link to this

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