Ambrose Bierce was one America’s greatest cynics. In his book, The Devil’s Dictionary, he didn’t include a definition for Turkey Day, but he did offer separate definitions for “turkey” and “day.”
A “turkey,” according to Bierce, is “a large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.”
And a “day” is “a period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.”
Personally, I’ve never considered a day devoted to eating turkey, visiting with family, and watching football games misspent. Rather, it is time well spent, especially if later on it involves a tryptophan-induced nap. And that’s doubly true when nobody spends too much money on the food.
Happily, Thanksgiving dinner remains easily affordable. Feeding traditional items to ten people should cost a mere $36.78, according to a new analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
For 20 years, the AFBF has calculated the price of a Thanksgiving meal. (Bierce defines “price” as “value, plus a reasonable sum for the wear and tear of conscience in demanding it.”) This year’s cost is only a little bit higher than last year’s–by $1.10, to be exact. That’s about 3 percent. But as farmers know, such tiny fluctuations are an ordinary part of the agricultural economy.
We’re paying slightly more this year because turkeys cost an additional 5 cents per pound compared to 2004. Other items that have gone up in price include milk, peas, carrots, celery, rolls, and pumpkin pie mix–each one a component of the AFBF’s idea of a proper Thanksgiving dinner. A few items are actually less expensive, including sweet potatoes, cranberries, and whipping cream.
The real story, however, isn’t that the price of a Thanksgiving dinner has gone up by a buck. It’s that the price remains affordable, and that it’s been affordable for a long time. If you account for inflation, in fact, the cost hasn’t changed much over the last 15 years. And it’s gone down since the AFBF began its annual survey: In 1986, the first year the AFBF studied these prices, the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for a family of ten was $28.74; this year’s cost of $36.78, adjusted to 1986 dollars, is $19.04.
With the price of energy rising everywhere, it’s amazing that expenses haven’t gone through the roof. (The AFBF claims that this year’s 3-percent price hike is mostly due to the higher energy costs associated with processing, packaging, refrigerating, and shipping.)
As it happens, this is the best time of year to buy a turkey. Whereas many retailers mark down the price of shorts when summer ends and mark up the price of coats as winter nears, turkeys are actually less expensive when demand is high. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, has found that the price of turkey in November is about two-thirds of what it is the rest of the year.
That’s one of the reasons why I tell people not to eat Thanksgiving dinner in the springtime. Apart from the fact that they risk looking like April fools, it can cost a good deal more. (Bierce defines a “fool” as “a person who pervades the domain of intellectual speculation and diffuses himself through the channels of moral activity. … And after the rest of us have retired for the night of eternal oblivion [perhaps from tryptophan?] he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.”)
Whatever the price, eating Turkey on the final Thursday of November is one of our culture’s culinary highlights. Its continuing affordability is a tribute to the hard work and efficiency of the American farmer. And for that – and so much more – I am thankful.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.