The tradition of presenting the president with a turkey began in 1947 during Harry Truman’s first term. But Truman didn’t pardon that turkey; he ate it, and so did most of his successors for the next 40 years. Only in 1989 did George H. W. Bush issue the first turkey pardon, and the ceremony stuck. Now, even though only one top turkey meets the president, his alternate, sitting in a back room in case the winner becomes unruly, is also spared.
The turkeys hail from a ranch chosen each year by the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. This year’s chairman, the turkey geneticist Jihad Douglas, chose the Modesto ranch, owned by the California poultry giant Foster Farms. The ranch’s original 50 candidates, whittled down to 12 before the final selection last Thursday, were all born in July, leaving them enough time to reach roughly 40 pounds by Thanksgiving. “They have a nice environment,” says Douglas. “We do everything possible to provide them with a setup in a way they can explore their genetic potential.”
That genetic potential is not particularly robust: This year’s turkeys (and many others in recent history) are of a domesticated variety known as Nicholas White, bred for shock-white feathers and huge breasts. While wild and heritage turkeys may live to around five years, Ira Brill, Foster Farms’ communications director, explains that the life expectancy of Nicholas Whites is generally two to three. “They won’t live as long as a wild turkey,” he says. “These are turkeys that are bred for food, and that’s the primary use that we put them to.”
The Foster Farms turkey handler Joe Hedden says presidential turkeys need to be calm and social, able to handle the White House crowd without going berserk. Such sociability training requires daily one-on-one time with handlers. To acclimate the birds to noise, Hedden and his team brought in a radio—and discovered that they had an affinity for country. “As soon as we changed the channel,” he says, “they started responding, gobbling back and forth with the music.” (But they don’t like just any country music, Brill points out. “They’re into the Bakersfield Buck Owens sound.”)
Brill, Hedden, and their colleagues seem to have embraced the serious silliness of grooming a turkey to meet the president. At the selection ceremony the Thursday before Thanksgiving, actors dressed as mock Secret Service agents, complete with crisp suits and earpieces, flanked the turkeys’ enclosure. On Monday, the birds boarded a Washington-bound plane nicknamed “Turkey One,” in which passengers received napkins emblazoned with the presidential turkey logo. After touching down, the birds were escorted to a private, sawdust-lined room at the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel near the White House.
More Info: theatlantic.com