Jim Mason's Book Review of "More Than a Meal" by Karen Davis
More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Lantern Books, New York
2001, 192 pp. $20.00
Reviewed by Jim Mason
This review appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of VegNews and is
reprinted with the editor's permission. www.vegnews.com.
Subscriptions to VegNews are $20/year and can be mailed to: VegNews, PO Box
320130, San Francisco, CA 94132. Sample copies are available by emailing
This is the kind of book that we need more of-"we" being advocates
for animals' rights and vegan living. The author is brilliant and
dedicated: Dr. Karen Davis is the founder and president of United
Poultry Concerns, the first U.S.-based advocacy organization focusing
exclusively on "poultry"-the farming industry's term for birds
exploited for food and feathers. With a flair for research, Davis
cuts through the pyramid of lies, distortions, and negative images
that society has constructed around the turkey; then she helps us get
to know the real animal. "The turkey," she writes, "is 'more than a
meal' in the sense that every creature is more than a meal outside
the range of those who prey on it."
Why," Davis asks in setting the purpose of her book, "do we celebrate
this hated bird?" And: "Why do we hate this celebrated bird?" In
response, she explains how "turkey" came to be a synonym for failure
and stupidity, how the bird got its name, and the weird dynamics of
the American ritual meal, Thanksgiving, in which the bird is both
celebrated and hated. In my favorite chapter, Davis carves to the
bone the annual presidential pardoning ceremony. Although it has
roots in deeds by presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, the ceremony
became official in 1989 when George Bush I-who evidently learned
something about showmanship from his predecessor, Hollywood actor
Ronald Reagan-added to the imagery of his kinder, gentler presidency
by inviting thirty poor and minority children to the White House.
Such information is not just so much entertaining trivia, however. It
is a substantial part of Davis' case that meat-eating America needs
the turkey as a sort of totem animal in reverse-one to serve as the
object of derision, humiliation, sacrificial blood rituals, and other
devices so that the nation can more easily insulate its collective
conscience from its addiction to finger-lickin' flesh.
This is all the more effective because Davis devotes other chapters
to turkeys as they are-breathing, feeling beings with a place in
nature. We learn that the species, Meleagris gallopavo, or literally
guineafowl-chickenlike peacock, "occupied North, South, and Central
America." It may be hard for most Americans to regard the bird as
"wildlife"-as native as the Blue heron or the Bald eagle-because the
"wild" (or free?) birds are so outwardly different from their inbred,
artificially masturbated and inseminated brothers and sisters
confined on factory farms. The native birds are swift runners, they
fly to roost in trees at night, carry on elaborate courtship rituals,
form stable social groups, fight to protect their young, and they
play together. The agribusiness turkey is denied all of these
behaviors in the interest of growing flesh fast and cheap.
Davis wisely concludes the book with a chapter on changes for the
better for both people and turkeys. Today, she says, coverage of
"Turkey Day" now includes more reports on the cruelties inherent in,
and the threats to human health and the environment linked to turkey
Jim Mason is the author of An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots
of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other and coauthor of Animal
Norm Phelps' Book Review of "More Than a Meal" by Karen Davis
This piece originally appeared in Satya, a monthly magazine of
vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy and social justice.
To learn more, please visit www.satyamag.com.
Book Review by Norm Phelps
More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality by
Karen Davis, Ph.D. (New York: Lantern Books, 2001). $20 paperback.
At a hunt sabotage more than 15 years ago, I met an English professor
from the University of Maryland. Like me, she was just getting her
feet wet as an animal activist. But in the years since, Karen Davis
has played a major role in shaping the American animal rights
In 1994, at the National Alliance for Animals' Seventh Annual
International Animal Rights Symposium, she delivered a speech
entitled, "The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights," in which she
argued that we must never be apologetic, tentative or defensive in
speaking out for the animals. We must not defend animal rights, Karen
Davis told us, we must affirm animal rights. With most of the leaders
and many of the rank and file in the room, this was a seminal moment
in the development of a fledgling movement that was still struggling
to find its voice.
Now, Karen Davis is best known for putting domestic fowl on the
animal protection map. The founder of United Poultry Concerns, the
first and-as far as I know-still the only national animal rights
group devoted exclusively to domestic fowl, she has, by willpower,
passion and perseverance, forced the public to become aware, very
much against their will, of the terrible suffering of chickens,
turkeys, and other farmed birds. In doing so, she has helped assure
that the movement stands up for all exploited animals, and not just
those that are cuddly or charismatic, or remind us of ourselves.
Davis' newest book, More Than a Meal, reflects both her dedication to
domestic fowl and her academic roots. Eighteen of its 192 pages
comprise a bibliography containing some 380 entries, nearly all
primary sources. Although I gave up trying to count them, there are
easily five or six hundred source citations. This is a book that can
hold its own in scholarly circles. It is, in fact, a definitive work
on turkeys and their role in American culture, as jacket blurbs from
the academic world testify.
But unlike most scholarly books, More Than a Meal is a good read, as
Davis explores America's love-hate relationship with this
quintessentially American bird. Why has the turkey become the symbol
of incompetence, stupidity, and failure at the same time that he is
the centerpiece of the most beloved of American holidays? As Davis
puts it, "'Why do we celebrate with this hated bird?' and 'Why do we
hate this celebrated bird?'" In pursuit of the answer, she takes us
on a journey that begins with native American cultures and continues
through the near eradication of the wild turkey by hunters, the
(surprisingly recent) identification of turkeys with Thanksgiving,
and our newest Thanksgiving tradition, the annual "pardoning" of a
turkey by the President in a White House ceremony.
But for me, as engrossing as I found this cultural history, the high
point of More Than a Meal was the long chapter (33 pages) on "The
Mind and Behavior of Turkeys," in which Davis demonstrates from the
work of scientists and naturalists-augmented by extensive personal
observation-that turkeys are sentient, intelligent and self-aware.
She notes that in a natural environment, turkeys function within
complex social structures and adapt intelligently to changes in their
surroundings. They can be highly affectionate with each other and
Observing that "Celebration can include evolution," Davis ends More
Than a Meal with a challenge for us to "invent new traditions" that
do not cost other sentient beings their freedom and their lives.
"Substitution of new materials for previously used ones to celebrate
a tradition is an integral part of tradition," she reminds us. "In
the religious realm, if we can substitute animal flesh for human
flesh and bread and wine for all flesh...and view these changes as
advances of civilization and not as inferior substitutes...we are
ready to go forward in our everyday lives on ground that is already
laid...If the Peaceable Kingdom is a genuine desire and a practicable
prospect, fake meat is the food to which dead meat has aspired, and
the fake meat makers are as deserving as anyone of the Nobel Prize
Norm Phelps is spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals.
You can visit their Web site at www.fund.org. His book, The Dominion
of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, is being published by
Lantern Books in June.
Maribeth Abrams' Book Review of "More Than a Meal" by Karen Davis
MORE THAN A MEAL:
The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.
New York, New York
2001, 192 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by Maribeth Abrams
This review was originally printed in Vegetarian Voice Magazine.
Several years ago, I read an article by Karen Davis addressing the
widespread myth that turkeys are stupid. At the time, I was surprised
at this notion. But now, since reading More Than A Meal: The Turkey
in History, Myth, Ritual, and Realtiy, I've been giving the topic a
lot of thought.
With well-documented information on the history of turkeys, their
uses by humans, behavior in their natural habitat versus in captivity
by humans, and posture on the Thanksgiving table, author Karen Davis,
Ph.D. brings to light the scape-goatesque manner in which turkeys
have historically been treated in the United States.
Consider the "Turkey Olympics," which ran for more than ten years
until just a few years ago, in which turkeys were mocked and taunted
while being forced through a variety of obstacles -- all in the name
of pre-Thanksgiving fun. Sponsors purported that the "games" were not
cruel because turkeys are dumb, and are going to be eaten anyway.
Interesting points: not smart, going to be eaten anyway.
Here's another one: a group of people tie the legs of turkeys
together, then place each turkey in the hole of a rubber tire on the
ground. Each turkey gets a pat on the head, and a smoothing-down of
feathers in a motherly fashion. Then, humans take bulleted aim at
their heads. Sometimes the turkeys die, but if not, their bodies are
flung from the tires only to roll until coming to a stop, where the
same woman who just minutes earlier smoothed down their feathers now
hacks at their necks with a hatchet.
The above stories are recent, but the history of such mockery,
humiliation, and "fun" with the intent to harm turkeys goes way back.
And the rationalizations, the excuses, are always the same: turkeys
are stupid, they are going to die anyway, and besides, they taste
One could argue the philosophy, as Karen points out in the book, that
the question at hand is not "[are they smart], but rather can they
suffer?" However, Karen devotes much of her book to illustrate how
specific turkey behaviors that are regarded as dumb by humans are
actually complex and instinctual traits, that in a natural setting,
would actually enhance survival.
For example, farmers are likely to say that turkeys are so dumb that
they'll drown in the rain. Here's what Davis has to say about that:
Young turkeys instinctively look up to see what's falling on them --
and if it's rain, their noses can subsequently clog with water. This
would never happen in nature, of course, because young turkeys would
be nestled under the wings of their mothers. But in large-scale
captivity, where the animals are essentially brutalized at birth,
poults never even meet their mothers let alone receive maternal
protection. And yes, this can sometimes lead to the drowning of young
And how about that Presidential Pardoning Ceremony. Is it a reminder
of presidential power, a way to alleviate guilt while chewing on the
leg of the bird that didn't make it to the Rose Garden, or just a
matter of good public relations? The most obvious question at hand,
as put forth by Davis, is that if a turkey has committed no wrong,
then how can it be pardoned? (Might some people think that the
turkey's "wrongdoing" was simply being born a turkey?)
The meaning of the turkey's role on the Thansgiving table is given
extensive coverage, including the role of the typically-male
presentation of dismembering and slicing the muscle off the corpse.
In More Than A Meal, Davis presents facts in a scholarly fashion.
Mostly historical facts, but also, sadly, facts pertaining to turkeys
that ring true right now, this year, this second. While her belief in
the sanctity of life for all creatures --human and non-human -- is
completely evident, she uses these facts to help readers come to
their own conclusion.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Book Reviews: Karen Davis' Book "More Than a Meal")