Boomers Had Their Turkey (and Ate It, Too)

If it seems that turkey — the staple protein for every non-vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner — has changed since our early boomer years, it’s because it has. There have been dramatic changes to the bird we consumed through the years, most noticeably since our parents’ time in the Great Depression.

The earliest settlers found the wild native bird to be so tasty that they brought some back with them to Europe. In order for heads of state to continue to dine on the exotic poultry, they quickly started to raise turkeys themselves. By the 1700s, the wild varieties had been hunted to near extinction in the Americas, but domesticated turkeys were being cultivated on both sides of the Atlantic.

In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving an official holiday, to be observed on the last Thursday of every November. The turkey was famously associated with the first Thanksgiving dinner — a celebration of the first harvest at the Plymouth Plantation in 1621 — when the Wampanoag Indians introduced the Pilgrims to the bird. It has been a part of our holiday tradition ever since.

By the 1920s, heritage breeds were reintroduced into the wild and the population of wild turkeys has been steadily growing since. Most turkeys were consumed on the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and at that point most were not being hunted, but rather domesticated birds were purchased fresh through a butcher. The variety most served to our parents in their youth was called Standard Bronze. It’s also the type of turkey that is depicted in the famous painting by Norman Rockwell. This variety was known to be lean and with long legs, producing a deep poultry flavor with less white meat and a slightly chewy texture.

During the 1930s, about a quarter of the population was unemployed due to the Great Depression. Many people could not afford a turkey, so smaller varieties were bred. These smaller breeds introduced size differences into the marketplace so more people could enjoy a bird on the holidays. Due to the impact of the Depression on the holiday seasons, in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested changing Thanksgiving to an earlier date so that the Christmas shopping season could be extended to help boost the economy. Congress did not agree, ultimately declaring the fourth Thursday in November the official date by passing Public Law #379.

As the post-war boomer years pushed forward in earnest in the early 1950s, science and technology were introducing all sorts of innovations to the marketplace, including TV dinners and Jell-O salads. Thanks to the widespread adoption of frozen foods, domesticated turkeys could be frozen for shipping across the country and available year ’round. Yet the public’s taste was changing. The overwhelming preference of the 1950s consumer was for more white meat on their turkeys. Breeders complied and produced Broad Breasted Whites. It was a variety specifically created to have larger breasts and shorter legs in order to maximize the amount white meat. The new variety quickly became the norm for boomer families in subsequent years.

Today ninety-nine percent of turkeys consumed on Thanksgiving are the Broad Breasted White variety, though signs point to that fact that tastes may be changing once again. The public’s penchant for white meat hasn’t diminished, but the introduction of heritage breeds, and organic and free-range varieties has tempted a food-conscious generation to taste the difference. Most will say wild heritage breeds and turkeys allowed to roam on farms taste better. Others point to the growing concern over how the birds are treated in their march to the marketplace, including the use of antibiotics that control disease while helping the birds to grow larger.

No matter in which camp boomers find themselves, it is certainly true that more turkey is consumed today than when we were young. It is the fastest growing type of meat, known not only for its taste but also because it contains fewer calories than other meats, and is generally less expensive. Our annual consumption of the bird has doubled since 1974, from 8.7 pounds per capita to more than 17 pounds last year. By contrast, in 1935 only 1.7 pounds of turkey was consumed per capita. There is no doubt that turkey is not just for Thanksgiving any more.

Mister Boomer clearly recalls some memorable Thanksgiving turkeys of his youth. His mother would clean up her enameled electric roaster that was primarily used on holidays to roast the bird. One year an attempt was made for a more traditional bird variety. It was a tom that Mister B’s parents were not satisfied with, proclaiming for the whole family that it was chewier than previous years, and that the experiment would not be repeated. Mister B, enjoying a turkey leg, could not tell what the fuss was about.

One Thanksgiving in the late 1950s, Mister B’s father decided to invite his entire family over for the holiday dinner. The roaster again was deployed, but this time a Butterball turkey was on the menu. The Butterball brand was known for two things: more white meat (making it a Broad Breasted White variety) and juicier meat due to injections of a flavored butter product. Swift Premium marketed the brand at the time, licensing the rights from Butterball Farms. The bird received rave reviews all around, so Mister B can attest first-hand to the changing tastes of boomer families for more white meat.

Today boomers enjoy turkey sandwiches, turkey bacon, turkey sausages and turkey loaves any time of the year. Yet the Thanksgiving turkey still evokes special memories — past and present — of meals shared with family and friends.

Can you remember the turkeys served on your families’ Thanksgiving tables, boomers?

Boomers Did the Monster Mash

Any boomer can identify the song as soon as the Boris Karloff voice says, “I was working in the lab late one night…” It’s Monster Mash, a Halloween novelty hit that was intended to piggyback on the success of the Mashed Potato and the Twist.

Just eight weeks after its release — on October 20, 1962 — Monster Mash hit number one on the Billboard charts. Its origins came about in a fortuitous fashion for Bobby “Boris” Pickett. Bobby Pickett had aspirations beyond music, and performed his impressions in a nightclub act in Hollywood in 1959 and ’60. As a singer with The Cordials, Bobby often did impressions for the audience between songs. He was known to imitate Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, among others. At one gig, Bobby recited the monologue in The Diamonds’ Little Darling in the voice of Boris Karloff. The audience reacted in such a positive manner that fellow bandmate Lenny Capizzi suggested Bobby do more with the impression.

Together, Lenny and Bobby penned Monster Mash to showcase his Boris Karloff impersonation. Bobby slipped a Bela Lugosi line into the song, too, with “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist.” After the song was rejected by four record companies, producer Gary Paxton’s Garpax label picked it up. Paxton had had previous luck with Alley Oop, a novelty hit in 1957. Bobby recorded the song with a group of studio musicians that some say included Leon Russell and Mel Taylor, the drummer for The Ventures. In fact, Leon was late for the recording session, so he played piano on the instrumental B-side of the 45 RPM, Monster Mash Party. Taylor is not credited on the record but rather, “Dr. Chud.” Together the group made up Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. The album from which that 45 RPM was culled was called The Original Monster Mash, and was released in August of 1962 — eight weeks from the time the 45 RPM hit number one. For all you rock history buffs, what was the song that was number one right before Monster Mash? Sherry by The Four Seasons. And after? The Crystals’ He’s a Rebel. How’s that for being in the company of rock royalty circa 1962?

Bobby encouraged a dance along with the song, too. It was a variation on the Mashed Potato, only with outstretched “Frankenstein” arms. Ever the ham, Bobby went on TV to perform his one hit wonder. Somewhere along the way, Boris Karloff himself heard the song and loved the tribute so much that he performed “his” part on Shindig! in October 1965.

Monster Mash is the song that Bobby Pickett is remembered for, despite his long career as a songwriter, singer and playwright. But what a memory! The song is still played annually as the unofficial anthem of Halloween music. It has been recorded several times through the years, most notable by The Misfits in 1999, and mentioned in countless pop culture references, including an episode of Happy Days, in horror films, and covered by several bands, including The Beach Boys, who covered it on their Beach Boys Concert album in 1964. Perhaps one of the best ways the song has been remembered is also a blast from the past for boomers: Monster Mash has been used as an astronaut wake-up call on Halloween.

Did Monster Mash catch on in flash to become a graveyard smash for you, boomers?