Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turkey Shoes: Something to Talk About on Thanksgiving When Conversation Lags

Shoeing the Goose misericord carving photographed by Giles C. Watson

For our non-USA readers: Today is Thanksgiving Day in the USA. The traditional meal stars a roast turkey. And that's just the beginning.

If the conversation lags around the dinner table today, pick up a drumstick and say nonchalently, "They used to shoe turkeys, you know."

All eyes will turn to you. In-laws will be impressed. Children will hold you in high esteem. Any corgis and border collies lying under the table waiting for a handout will say, "Oh yes, I remember my ancestors telling this tale..."

And the carving above, from a medieval church, proves it, even though that is a goose carved into a misericord, a sort of jump-seat ledge in church pews. (I highly recommend following the link to Giles Watson's site. A wealth of information about these relief carvings has been documented and Giles' photos are fantastic.) Double-click on the photo to enlarge it; the goose looks to be stabilized in a stocks and the farrier is hammering on its webbed foot.

Before railroads, the only way for turkeys and geese to get to market was for them to be herded along country roads to city markets. Drovers would purchase or consign them from multiple farmers and move great flocks toward the cities so they could be sold for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners.

You would hear the poultry flocks, and see the dust clouds, long before they passed through your town. The poultry could eat among the stubble of harvested fields as Thanksgiving approached. The drover didn't hurry them too much, since fatter birds meant higher prices for him. New England writers like Hawthorne and Emerson wrote complaining comments about the huge flocks of turkeys clogging up the roads and impeding the post or the stagecoach.

The problem was that the birds' feet and claws weren't cut out to march a few hundred miles. Turkeys were famous for just refusing to move, or they would roost up in trees and not come down. Geese apparently were much more lame than turkeys because of their webbed feet.

Cattle, too, had a hard time marching to market, and were often shod along the way. In fact, farriers were in great demand to accompany drovers so that the cattle could be shod or attended to as needed along the route. Even pigs and sheep and goats had to be shod occasionally, although pigs preferred woolen socks with a leather sole.

The drover's wagon followed slowly behind the drover, who was often on foot, and his dogs. The wagon picked up strays, or sick or lame birds. They stopped at drovers' inns, and pastured stock in rented or loaned fields overnight.

I don't know how the geese were shod in Europe, but I have read that is was some crafty New Englanders who figured out a simpler way to do it. They developed a series of pits along the route. In the first pit was warm tar; the turkeys and geese were herded into the pen and left for a bit, then moved to the second pen, which was sand. The sand, of course, stuck to the tar and made a gritty set of galoshes for the birds. About the time the tar wore off, they would arrive at the next set of pits.

It gives a new twist to the expression, "tarred and feathered", not to mention a "turkey trot".

In New England, all turkey roads led to Brighton, Massachusetts, which was home to the largest stockyards in America until the railroads (and a Clinton, Massachusetts butcher named Gustavus Swift) made Chicago possible. The 60-acre stockyard started as a slaughterhouse to provide meat for Washington's Army, which was camped nearby during the Revolution. By the Civil War era, the stockyards were surrounded by 61 slaughterhouses and drovers came to Boston from as far as Ohio. If you go to Brighton, you can still see the huge industrial plate drains in the streets along the Charles River where the stockyards stood. They were not draining just rainwater into that river.

Brighton was the end of the road for the sore-footed turkeys. And it may explain why we don't eat their feet.

Giles reminds us of an ancient Reynard the Fox ditty:

"It’s easier to revive a corpse
Robbed from a hangman’s noose
Than to stoop with iron nails
And shoe your grandma’s goose.

Bend your back, you farrier,
The goose foot on your knee,
And watch the locals gather round
And chortle for to see.

It’s easier to make sure a tooth
That’s grey and hanging loose
Than to stoop with iron nails
And shoe your grandma’s goose.

And if the goose should give a honk
As you are a-nailing
You’ll never make a goose’s smith –
‘Tis a sign that you are failing.

You’ll tear your hair out, feathers fly,
It won’t be any use,
For I’d rather shoe my grandma
Than shoe my grandma’s goose."

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm very thankful for the people who read this blog and support Hoofcare Publishing and are my friends, even if we have never met. Thank you, most of all, for helping the horses.

Buying the Thanksgiving turkey, circa 1910; double-click to enlarge and see detail. Library of Congress image.

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