Thanksgiving from 'dinner's point of view' Tradition: A vegetarian deplores the slaughter of 40 million turkeys for our national holiday celebrating the fall harvest.

November 23, 1997|By Colman McCarthy

Mid-November is when my flesh-eating friends call me a spoiler.

I insist on using accurate language to describe Thanksgiving: our only national holiday focused on a corpse, a turkey's. Even then, that's not really the full story. The Thanksgiving cadaver is a chemicalized, antibiotic-laced, bioengineered blob of high-fat, high-cholesterol flesh that is part of the food chain because the National Turkey Federation, among other vested interests, stakes large amounts of advertising and promotional money to dupe the public into equating their birds -- profitable "production units" -- as essential to Thursday's celebration of the fall harvest.

I know, I know. That's heavy talk. Lighten up, I am instructed. I'd like nothing more, except I keep coming on philosophers, writers, ethicists and theologians who decline to join in the nation's state of denial on the issue of slaughtering animals for food.

I have never forgotten "The Slaughterer," a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate who lived healthily on an animal-free diet. In the story, Yoineh Meir wanted to be a rabbi. No, the village Hasidim in the old country ruled, you are called by God to be the ritual slaughterer as found in sacred texts. He took holy instruments -- knives, a whetstone -- and followed the command of the all-wise Hasidim.

"Barely three months had passed since Yoineh Meir had become a slaughterer," Singer writes, "but the time seemed to stretch endlessly. He felt as though he were immersed in blood and lymph. His ears were beset by the squawking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the gobbling of geese, the lowing of oxen, the mooing and bleating of calves and goats; wings fluttered, claws tapped on the floor. The bodies refused to know any justification or excuse -- every body resisted in its own fashion, tried to escape, and seemed to argue with the Creator to its last breath."

Yoineh Meir, whose life would end in madness, also could not escape: "The killing of every beast, great and small, caused him pain as though he were cutting his own throat. Of all the punishments that could have been visited upon him, slaughtering was the worst."

Fiction becomes reality every year about this time when officials from the turkey-killing industry haul one of their full-feathered toms to the White House. President after president has dutifully played his part in this yearly ritual of deceit by granting a "pardon" to the bird before him, while not daring to tell the public that some 300 million other turkeys are slaughtered annually, with 40 million killed for Thanksgiving alone. The media play their part at this staged event by photographing this bird that escaped death row while ignoring the year-round story of gore and death that is the lot of the factory-farm birds that live for no more than a few months in high-stress confinement.

So, I get asked, "You some kind of animal rights nut, or something?'

Not really. I just like to digest a bit of truth and realism with my vegetable-fruit-grain based meals.

On Thanksgiving Day, two years ago, C-SPAN invited me on for its Washington Journal program, 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Two journalists comment on newspaper stories from that day. Viewers phone in with their comments.

After offering my thoughts on a couple of typical media airhead stories about Thanksgiving -- omitting all mention of details of the sordid and brutal ways turkeys are inseminated, raised and killed -- the phones lighted up with outraged callers, furious that I brazenly befouled the airways with my unpatriotic dissent from this most wholesome of American holidays.

This was two years ago, so none of my callers could denounce me as a communist. I did earn that epithet, though, at Thanksgiving in 1987. Sen. Jesse Helms, the Washington errand boy for North Carolina's turkey industry, wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post responding to my column on diseases that humans catch from salmonella bacteria in turkey meat.

After dismissing the health threat by assuring readers that "some bacteria are to be found in almost everything we eat, including carrots," the senator, ruffling his feathers, said my column wasn't likely to stop people from eating turkey, least of all in the Helms household.

"A turkeyless Thanksgiving," he said, would mean "saucers and plates would probably fly around the dining room." Then he heaved a projectile of his own at my commie-pinko column: "This latest curious advocacy printed in the Post fits in with its endorsement of communist and socialist dictatorships around the world and its relentless efforts to appease the communists in Nicaragua, Cuba and the Soviet Union."

Looks as if Jesse Helms needs to lighten up. To help him adjust to the new world without the Soviets or Sandinistas about to storm the United States and the Helms' dining room, here is the latest from Alex Hershaft and Scott Williams from the Farm Animal Reform Movement (800-MEATOUT) in Bethesda.:

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