Thanksgiving Is a Beast

My husband and I once traveled to southern Belize before Christmas. We took a daylong trip to D-grade Mayan ruins that were nothing to get excited about. But the trip there—up mangrove swamps, along a stretch of the Pan-American Highway slipping back into jungle, and down a river roiling with crocodiles—was worth it.

We stopped at a tiny village to switch from boat to bus. A lady invited us into her dirt-floored house to look at some hand-carved bowls for sale, and there it was, in a wood-frame cage in the corner: a creature the size of a toddler crouched on all fours, only it appeared to be half-rat, half-possum.

It was a gibnut, a nocturnal rodent being fattened for Christmas dinner. It had dark, shiny eyes and a ringed tail that tapered; it grunted and shifted when I moved closer. The lady’s kids scampered around the cage, squatted down to point at the thing chained inside, looking up at me as if to say, “Isn’t this amazing?” The lady told me that the Queen of England once ate gibnut when she visited Belize (this is true—in 1985). Clearly, the rodent before me was a huge source of family pride.

I think about that gibnut at Thanksgiving. Something about the excitement of those kids—it was like me, but with turkey. Watching my mom pick one out of the freezer bin at Safeway. How it thawed in the fridge for days in a Pyrex dish, seeping clear red liquid through its plastic jacket. How she pulled out the little bag of weird fleshy things lodged inside, and rinsed and dried the pinkish, bumpy skin. How she held it by the wings to make it dance for me on the edge of the sink.

What is it about mastering a beast that has the capacity to bring human beings together in joy? Chaining it up or penning it, feeding it to make it fat and tender—that’s the primal part of Thanksgiving, the part that almost always gets lost in the avalanche of practical details. The recipes that CHOW’s Test Kitchen has been working on for months now, or a thoughtful guide like Sam Sifton’s new Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well—they take for granted the central act of Thanksgiving, which is the raising, slaughtering, and processing of animals.

Three weeks from now, on the day we’ll be wrestling carcasses into ovens, smokers, deep-fryers, or the back seats of Subarus double-parked out front of Whole Foods. Can we stop to think about the beast that peered through its cage with beady eyes, mutely bearing the burden of so much anticipated joy?

Photo by Flickr member wattpublishing under Creative Commons

Follow John Birdsall on Twitter.