Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Talking turkey

This week's New Yorker magazine cover highlights a turkey sitting on a ledge with a few pigeons. It's the classic turkey any schoolkid would draw--blue head, red wattle, and a lovely banded tail.

Most turkeys destined for tables tomorrow, Broad-breasted Whites, never looked like this. Commercial growers prefer a bird whose feathers do not betray a less than perfect plucking job, a bird with a chest so broad it cannot reproduce without a few humans involved, a bird which does not taste like the one your grandmother ate.

Today I asked the kids to describe the turkey they planned to eat. Many refused to believe it has white feathers.

At least kids still have some connection between the critter and the cooked carcass.

Sean Nash has started a wonderful conversation on his blog, a chat initiated by a question asked by one of his students--where are the seeds in an orange?


Oranges without seeds. Flour without bran. Imitation crab.

None of this need be a big deal, and they may never know what they're missing. At my age, I cannot remember what I am missing. All I can do is taste the difference between a Brandywine tomato picked an hour ago, and whatever F1 hybrid tomato A&P is carrying. That is enough.

And what if a child today prefers the illusion of safety cocooned in a womb of technology? So what if she prefers WoW to the edge of a pond? What is lost?

And here is where old folk sputter and spew, because we know something's missing, right? By the time we're done sputtering, the earbuds are back in, thumbs waving like antennae, and the child's back in her universe.

What is lost?
Complexity beyond imagination.

If a child is not exposed to the incomprehensible, she will start to believe she understands the world, that the world is truly safe, that humans are truly superior creatures, that humans can fix any problem nature has to offer, not realizing that she and nature cannot be separated.

Enough of the rich and powerful adults among us grew up in cocoons, and seem genuinely puzzled by what has happened here in the States.

Those of us with toes in the mud know better, because we know we know almost nothing.

We know this much, though. The sun, a gift, only shines so much in a year. Plants, all gifts, only bear so much fruit in a year. There are only so many animals available to eat in a year. All economics, or at least all economics of value, ultimately comes down to how much the soil and the sun can yield--not in a year, not even in lifetime, but indefinitely. There are limits to what we know, to what we can know.

There are also limits to what we ought to know; I'm a heretic among science teachers. Wes Jackson, a farmer and founder of the Land Institute, is also a heretic:

For a half century now I have had the opportunity to witness the mind of religious fundamentalists at work.... We usually think of it as associated with certain religious denominations but it is now more rampant in the scientific community than religion. Fundamentalism is worrisome, wherever it is found, because it takes over where thought ends. It is so rampant in science now, that we plunge ahead with biotechnology faster than we can develop the intellectual framework and imagination for evaluating the possible risks.

The curriculum demands I teach my students about transgenic bacteria just a few years after they traced their hands and drew the spectacularly colored turkeys they thought they were eating.

I bet most of them still don't believe that turkeys are white.

I was going to show a brief video today of how turkeys are inseminated, but thankfully the school filters worked better than my frontal lobe. I still may have done just enough to make Thanksgiving a little more interesting tomorrow for some of our families.
Your science teacher did what?

He gobbled like a turkey, picked up a desk, pretended it was his chest, then tried to, er, you know, do it with a pretend girl turkey, and he couldn't, so now humans do turkeys. I found a video on YouTube...want to see it?

I'm calling the school first thing Monday!

Food has become taboo, or rather how we go from the ground to our gut has become taboo.

How many of us dare to show how animals are raised? Butchered? Processed? Even when done humanely, we hide it from the kids.

I gave every one of my freshmen a wheat berry today. I told them it was part of something they would stuff inside their turkey. Only one child guessed what it was.

Just about every town around here has a "Mill Street" dating back to when flour was only fresh for a few days, back when flour had enough oil to turn rancid. Refined flour, however, has a much longer shelf life. We don't need local mills anymore.

Crushed wheat berries are brown, not white.
Crushed wheat berries have a complex, wonderful flavor that makes bread come alive.
Crushed wheat berries can keep you alive without being fortified with folic acid, niacin, and riboflavin--they're already in there.

I have fallen out of the habit of making bread--I need to start again. My time would be better spend grinding wheat berries and baking bread than sitting in front of this monitor.

On the other hand, if I keep talking turkey in class, it might not be too long before I have a whole lot more time on my hands.

I lifted the orange from Sean Nash's site, who borrowed it from Weil, Gyorgy. “wguri’s photostream.” oranges. 17 MAY 2007. Flickr. 24 Nov 2008
The wheat berry came from the University of Arkansas.
The New Yorker cover came, natch, from the New Yorker site.
The bread comes courtesy of Jessica Pierce, the bunny lady. She creates wonderful things regularly. If you're ever in Atlanta, stop by and try her cake!


Unknown said...

Call me a heretic too. We do things that we ought not too just because we can. I feel an impending doom in the fact that a large majority of people do not comprehend the basic facts of existence on this planet and we have put many species at peril (for those that think it is not important, in the domino effect, we are in line too.)

doyle said...

OK, you're a heretic!

How much do share with the children?
Have you ever pulled back from a lesson because of real/perceived restraints?

(Leslie heard my tom turkey routine--she says she'll feel a lot better once I'm tenured.)

erinnash said...

Ha! Your classroom description of artificial insemination - pure inspiration :)

Thank you very much - I am always looking for new classroom role models.

A thought about your comment, "If a child is not exposed to the incomprehensible, she will start to believe she understands the world, that the world is truly safe, that humans are truly superior creatures, that humans can fix any problem nature has to offer, not realizing that she and nature cannot be separated."

I couldn't agree more...
Something to add to that notion is that one not exposed to the incomprehensible may also see little value in.

If something isn't deemed valuable, then one may find little reason to protect it.

And that scares the heck out of me.

doyle said...


Knowing what someone (or a culture) values enough to protect says a lot about that person (people).

It's hard to tease out value-neutral ideas in science, despite the mantra that technology (often confused with science) is neutral (it is not). It must be even harder to teach literature or history, where even choosing what to present to the students requires value judgments.

Thank you for your words. You're not the only one frightened by what's going on around us.

Angela said...

How do you grind them, doylie-doyle? With a mortar and pestle? I don't think I have a granite bowl large enough to hold a bread's worth of flour.

doyle said...

Hi Angela!

I grind them using a Country Mill hand mill--takes about 25 minutes, and the sweat's pouring off my brow when done, but it's worth the effort.

A bread's worth of flour is about 6 cups, I think--I make two small loaves.

I think it would take me 2 months to do it with a mortar and pestle.

Anonymous said...

Call me a heretic too.