Dark meat is better. Why don't we love it more?
By Ron Rosenbaum
Posted Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011, at 7:21 AM ET
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.
This is what I can't understand: Why does most of America want its turkey meat white? ...
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?
... 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?