The Spectator

The Unbearable Whiteness of White Meat

Dark meat is better. Why don’t we love it more?

Homemade Thanksgiving Turkey.
Why white meat?

Photo by Thinkstock

Let me say at the outset, I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill. I’m happy for you if you like white-meat turkey. I don’t think less of you. In fact I think rather more of you for being able to be satisfied with so little in the way of flavor. Perhaps in a past life you were a self-flagellating friar. (I’m reading Wolf Hall can’t help the allusion. Best novel I’ve read in years, by the way.)

But, seriously, I mean no disrespect, especially in this holiday celebration of fellowship and thanksgiving. And, yes, I’m familiar with the phrase “de gustibus non est disputandum“—there’s no arguing about taste. But in the case of white meat from a Thanksgiving turkey, well, I’d argue about that.

White meat turkey has no taste. Its slabs of dry, fibrous material are more like cardboard conveyances, useful only for transporting flavorsome food like stuffing and gravy from plate to mouth. It’s less a foodstuff than a turkey app, simulated meat, a hyperlink to real food.

But I am fascinated by how tastes get made and unmade, the intersection of culture, class and sensory responses. Not being a postmodernist I wouldn’t call the overwhelming American preference for white-meat turkey a form of cultural hegemony. More like a mass hallucination. Why, for instance, hasn’t white meat shared the same fate, the same cultural disenfranchisement, as packaged white bread?

Some of you may remember white bread. Not the white bread of crusty baguettes and the like, but the white bread of sliced, standardized loaves of cotton wool, the stuff people ate before everyone switched to baguettes and focaccia and brioche, which are, yes, often “white” but not “white bread” in the old-fashioned, mass-produced sense. I’m talking about Wonderbread bread.

White bread of this sort is still around, can still be found, but no longer enjoys any elite status. Refined white-flour bread once was regarded as the peak of social refinement by the new middle class, perhaps because it left behind the time-consuming home-baked whole-grain variety. No gritty grains, no uncracked wheat, just highly processed, snow-white identical slices. It was aspirationally upper-crusty even at tea time when the crusts were cut off.

Then “refined” became a dirty word, nutritionally at least. White bread suffered two successive falls from grace. First from upper-middle class households, in the years when “middle class” became not an achievement to be proud of but a signifier of negative attributes: White bread came to be associated with boring blandness, suburban sanitized white-picket-fence-ified phony gentility. A veritable curse upon a person or a work of art: “That’s so white-bread.”

And then the final fall, evident in the successive waves of ever-more-prevalent stone-ground, hippie, New Age, whole-grain, zucchini-infused, heavily seeded, soy-enhanced brown bread. Its cause was aided by the nutritionists who scolded that eating white bread was a virtual death sentence since processing removed all nutritional value, which caused manufacturers to pump artificial vitamins into the white paste they turned out. White bread, we were instructed, was almost as toxic as the dread poison white sugar.

Even mass marketers shunned it in favor of (often artificially flavored and colored) brown bread, which came in whole-grain and “cracked-wheat” and fake bakery configurations. By this time, eating white bread, buying white bread became worse than being white-bread. It became redneck. It became a signifier of trailer-park, gas-station-convenience-store culture. Imagine a New York hostess—a hostess anywhere!—serving some of those pale squares of paper pulp at a dinner party. Might as well serve TV dinners for the main course, or a Dorito burrito bag.

I digress on the fate of white bread because what’s mystifying to me is the profound enigma: Why hasn’t this same dynamic affected white-meat turkey? Yes, there are the foodies who claim their “heritage” turkeys offer white meat that tastes much better than what you find on those obscenely bloated Butterballs. But at $14 a pound, a single heritage turkey can free-range up to $200 for a single family-size bird.

And then when you present your heritage bird, according to some comments I’ve read on foodie chat-room boards, you’re liable to get comments like, “How come the white meat isn’t more white?”

This is what I can’t understand: Why does most of America want its turkey meat white? Why do people flock to the obscenely named Butterballs, which boast of overinflated breasts as unnatural as the silicone boobs of truck-stop strip joints or of the Kardashian sisters?

Why have we broken the chains of the whiteness that bound us to fatally tasteless white bread while still remaining imprisoned in the white-meat turkey ghetto?

A friend was trying to convince me that in fact America has lost its taste for this tasteless meat, but the Sunday before Thanksgiving I was listening to the CBS all-news radio station in New York City, and they were doing a fluff piece on the turkey buying that was peaking that weekend. And the reporter was interviewing some guy from Stew Leonards, a food mega-store that serves New York City’s sophisticated suburbs and exurbs in Westchester County and Fairfield County, Conn.

And the guy was boasting that his turkeys were “bred to have 18 to 22 percent more white meat.” After which the CBS announcer made a stupid wisecrack about breasts that alone would make you want to forgo the silicone-textured mega-butterballs.

And these are ciabatta-bread people, not Wonderbread people! Do they still associate white meat with refinement? It was enough to make me wonder whether there could be a racial, if not racist, subtext here. Perhaps there is a clue in the shifting fate of the “other white meat”—pork. I’ll never forget the moment when I learned the antebellum racial origin of the phrase “living high on the hog.” I had driven down the I-5 “grapevine,” that fog-shrouded mountainous interior route from San Francisco to L.A. with a couple of Communist Party women who were mothers of death row prisoners (long story). When dawn broke and we arrived in Watts, they guided me to a place called Ray’s Redwood City, an all-night, almost all-black joint where the ladies of Saturday night dined with the ministers of Sunday morning (not at the same tables), and my fellow travelers ordered me a dish called “high on the hog,” a mountain of scrambled eggs topped by a fried pork chop.

It was then I learned the etymology of the phrase in America. It hails from the plantation days, when the white slave owners dined on choice pork chops cut from “high on the hog” while the slaves made do with the lower parts of the pig—the ham hocks, the pigs feet, the pork bellies, and the innards. White meat was high on the hog, but not higher on flavor than other (often darker) cuts. Indeed the “other white meat” now available most frequently in lean and tasteless pork chops and cutlets has little more taste than white meat turkey.

Despite its superior taste, dark meat has dark undertones for some. Dark meat evokes the color of earth, soil. Dark meat seems to summon up ancient fears of contamination and miscegenation as opposed to the supposed superior purity of white meat. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that white meat remains the choice of a holiday that celebrates Puritans.

Indeed, the connotations of the pale and darker parts of the turkey constitute a meaty metaphor for the Thanksgiving feast itself. The allegedly more refined and daintier white parts, the wings and breast, have never touched the ground the way the earthier darker legs have done. And you know how dirty dirt is.

By the way, if you want to read a brilliant poetic embodiment of the real story of our “Pilgrim fathers,” a chilling antidote to white bread, white meat, and Thanksgiving treacle, I recommend you take a look at Robert Lowell’s amazing, chilling poem “Children of Light” (which could have been called (“Children of White”).

Its opening lines represent the best unsentimental epitaph for the myth of Thanksgiving:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones.

Maybe that’s why I have a prejudice against the white-meat sacrament of the holiday that covers up the white man’s crimes.

It’s Lowell writing about his pilgrim ancestors who began the rolling genocidal slaughter of those nice Native Americans who made the first Thanksgiving possible.

The real Thanksgiving story is extremely dark, far darker than any leg and thigh meat.

Could fear of facing our dark history be behind the prejudice against dark meat? Or is there more to the darkness of dark meat that feeds that fear?

This is what occurred to me when I put the question to my cohort of Facebook “friends” the Monday before Thanksgiving. There was one comment in particular that made me wonder whether something deeper wasn’t going on: “I hate dark meat it’s slimy and viscous.”

I had always thought it was a matter of the tastelessness of white meat, but here was an instance of some profound and fundamental revulsion against the threatening sensuality of dark meat. (Which others might call juiciness—what must he think of gravy?)

The language in which it was expressed reminded me of something I had not paid attention to since my undergraduate days: Jean Paul Sartre’s mad rants against “ooze” and “viscosity” in Being and Nothingness.

I Googled around and found a commentary on one key passage in Sartre’s meditation on “le visqueux“—both slime and the slimy:

For Sartre, the slimy resists the standard categorizations of solidity and liquidity, maintaining itself in a disgusting physical condition somewhere between the two: “Slime is the agony of water. It presents itself as a phenomenon in the process of becoming; it does not have the permanence within change that water has but on the contrary represents an accomplished break in a change of state. This fixed instability in the slimy discourages possession.”

However nonsensical most of Sartre is, that’s a great line isn’t it? “Slime is the agony of water.”

Maybe that’s it: Dark meat represents slime and viscosity. Dark meat embodies all the menace of dissolution into the nothingness that is the slimy ground of being itself!

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