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Tales of the Turkey: Catastrophes, Jokes and More

Ben Franklin was a big fan of these North American natives. See more pictures of wild turkeys.
John Kelley/Photodisc/Getty Images

Turkeys are native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States, so Europeans didn't get their first taste until the 16th century. The wild turkeys they would have dined on could run up to about 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour) and fly short distances at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour (88.5 kilometers per hour) [source: University of Illinois Extension]. Nowadays, most of the turkeys people consume are not so athletic. They've been bred to appeal to customers, and customers tend to care more about things like the appearance and quality of the meat than the look of the live bird.

Minnesotans are top dogs when it comes to turkey production: They raised an estimated 48 million pounds (22 million kilograms) of turkey in 2008. North Carolina and Arkansas are also big in the business [source: The National Turkey Federation]. But Americans aren't alone in their love for turkey; Israelites ate an average of about 23 pounds (10.5 kilograms) a person in 2008. In contrast, that same year a typical American ate about 17.6 pounds of turkey, a French person put away about 11.7 pounds and a Canadian just shy of 10 pounds (or 8, 5.3 and 4.5 kilograms per person, respectively) [source: Turkey Farmers of Canada].

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Turkeys rank fourth when it comes to protein placed on the plates of Americans -- with chicken, beef and pork beating them out. That doesn't mean turkeys have it easy. Americans eat an estimated 675 million pounds (306 million kilograms) of turkey each Thanksgiving, and with each bird weighing in at an average of 15 pounds (7 kilograms), that comes out to be about 45 million gobblers who get the ax [source: University of Illinois Extension].

Plenty of bad jokes are floating around out there that poke fun at turkeys. But these fowl that Ben Franklin championed so ardently as the national bird can handle some jibes. Here are a few silly examples that are sure to leave you groaning:

  • Question: Which side of a turkey has the most feathers?
  • Answer: The outside.
  • Question: What happened when the turkey got into a fight?
  • Answer: He had the stuffing knocked out of him.
  • Question: Can a turkey jump higher than the Empire State Building?
  • Answer: Yes -- a building can't jump at all.

Corny? Definitely. But still capable of cracking up many 6-year-olds. For more information about turkey catastrophes and some tips on avoiding them, continue to the next page.

Coming soon to a dinner table near you!
Coming soon to a dinner table near you!
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Turkey is low in fat and loaded with protein, which is probably one of the reasons its popularity has soared over the past few decades. In 1970, after all, your average American ate only about 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of turkey each year, and about half of that was around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nowadays, turkeys are more likely to be eaten year-round -- only 29 percent are gobbled down during the holiday season [source: The National Turkey Federation].

But cooking turkey is no joke. It has to be done properly or you can have a ticking time bomb promising disaster on your hands. So to ensure any turkeys you cook up for holiday guests aren't going to make them sick as a dog or set off a smoke alarm, stick to the following tips.

Let's start with the pan you're going to cook the turkey in. Cheap disposable aluminum ones might look good to someone on a budget, but they can easily buckle under the weight of a full-grown bird. Talk about a catastrophe -- your guests are not going to be pleased if they find out their meal hit the floor, and you'll have to waste time and energy mopping up the mess. Better to shell out some cash and get a reusable pan that's more robust. Also, make sure it's not too big or you could burn your hands when you pull it out of the oven.

Apart from run-of-the-mill cooking mishaps like burning the bird, on the next page we'll look at some other pitfalls that can turn a fantastic holiday dinner into a full-blown catastrophe.

Turkeys only stay good for a day or two if they're fresh, so if you don't want to buy a frozen one, make sure you pay attention to the sell-by date and refrigerate the turkey as soon as you get home. If you go the frozen route, proper thawing is an important consideration. You can thaw a turkey in a microwave, a refrigerator or a sink filled with cold water. Refrigeration is the best and safest method, and can take a couple of days for a full 15-pound bird. If you decide to go the cold water route, change the water every 30 minutes or so and be careful to keep kitchen surfaces clean and already-cooked food clear of the area. For a 15-pounder, thawing in the sink can take about 8 hours.

Using a microwave is the fastest method, and the manufacturer should provide instructions on the power level and amount of time it will likely take. If you choose to nuke your turkey, don't make the catastrophic mistake of not checking its size. The bird could be too big to fit in the microwave, so check this out when you still have plenty of time to use one of the other two ways. Once thawed in the fridge or in cold water, pop your bird back in the refrigerator until you're ready start cooking. If you went the microwave route, heat up the stove because it's go-time.

When you go to roast the bird, carefully monitor its internal temperature through the breast, the wing, the thigh and the stuffing (if applicable). They all need to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) at the very least to help decrease the chance that foodborne illnesses will wreck your holiday fun. To stay on the safe side, aim for a slightly hotter temperature. Sometimes stuffing can make it harder to reach an ideal temperature, so you might want to forgo cooking the two in tandem or take the stuffing out partway through and let it finish cooking on its own. You also don't want to stuff your bird the night before, because this can give bad bacteria time to multiply in the insulated warmth of the turkey's body. When the meal is done, don't dawdle refrigerating the leftovers.

When it comes time to chow down on those leftovers, be sure to carefully reheat the turkey and stuffing at least back up to the minimum internal temperature (again, that's 165 degrees Fahrenheit and 74 degrees Celsius) to make sure its safe. And remember, turkey and stuffing only keep for a few days after cooking unless they're frozen.

Now tickle your inner turkey with more articles about food and fun times on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Balsley, Tara. "Single Minimum Internal Temperature Established For Cooked Poultry." Congressional and Public Affairs Office of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. April 5, 2006. (10/12/2009) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_040506_01/index.asp
  • Chenault, Edith. "Turkey Trivia: How much does your bird weigh?" Texas A&M Agriculture. November, 1995. (10/12/2009) http://agnewsarchive.tamu.edu/dailynews/stories/POSC/turkey.htm
  • "Jokes for Thanksgiving." TheHolidaySpot.com. (10/12/2009) http://www.theholidayspot.com/thanksgiving/jokes.htm
  • "Thanksgiving Jokes and Riddles. Kaboose.com. (10/12/2009) http://holidays.kaboose.com/thanks-games-jokes.html
  • The National Turkey Federation Web site. (10/12/2009) http://www.eatturkey.com/about.html
  • The National Wild Turkey Federation Web site. (10/12/2009) http://www.nwtf.org/
  • The Turkey Farmers of Canada Web site. (10/12/2009) http://www.turkeyfarmersofcanada.ca/recipes/english/
  • "Turkey 101." MyRecipes.com. (10/12/2009) http://www.myrecipes.com/recipes/gallery/print/0,32179,1678095,00.html
  • "Turkey Facts." InfoPlease.com. 2007. (10/12/2009) http://www.infoplease.com/spot/tgturkeyfacts.html
  • "Turkey for the Holidays." University of Illinois Extension. (10/12/2009) http://urbanext.illinois.edu/turkey/
  • "Turkey Jokes." Paralum.com (10/12/2009) http://www.paralumun.com/jokesturkey.htm
  • "Turkey Trivia." Purdue University. (10/12/2009) http://www.physics.purdue.edu/~schneppn/turkey.pdf

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