Popcorn the turkey wins presidential pardon, but Caramel also spared Thanksgiving feast

November 27, 2013

The sign on the doorknob said “Privacy Please,” and yet the turkeys had none. Visitors were regular. Photos were incessant. Wood chips spilled into the hallway, and if that wasn’t a giveaway, then the occasional gobblegobble was. By Monday evening the most famous birds in America had taken roost in the Willard Intercontinental, in a room that rents to humans for about $400 per night. The vestibule had been tarped and cordoned off. A bottle of Fiji water was on the bureau, just out of pecking distance.

They are beasts, these white broad-breasted lunks of feather. At eye level they have a baleful, beady-eyed glare. Their heads are a cascade of guts-colored wattle, their snoods a wriggling indignity astride pale beaks. They seem either profoundly stupid or capable of great evil, as if they are moments away from dozing off or springing into attack mode.

“The little guy in the back has a little more wattle, and it’s a deeper red,” says John Burkel, president of the National Turkey Federation, trying to differentiate the two for a layman. Burkel raised the pair on his family farm way up in the noggin of Minnesota, in a town called Badger, population 375, unless you count Burkel’s turkeys, in which case it’s maybe 10,000, depending on how many flocks of turkeys are alive at any given time.

The president of the federation provides the turkeys for the president to pardon the day before Thanksgiving. It’s one of the country’s inane, necessary rituals, like singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch, even though everyone’s already at a ball game.

Besides being boffo publicity for the turkey industry, and a vexing charade in the minds of animal rights activists, and a platform from which writers squawk about the grip of Big Agriculture and the actual humans who deserve real clemency, the turkey pardon is — “a chance for people who aren’t involved with growing food to keep in touch with where it comes from,” says Peter Gruhl, a customer service representative for Hybrid Turkeys, which hatched the pair in question July 8 and then sent them as day-old poults to the Burkel farm to be raised into meaty almost-entrees.

President Obama cracked a few jokes before pardoning Popcorn the turkey as part of a White House Thanksgiving tradition Wednesday. (The Washington Post)

While the rest of their flock of 8,000 were sent to “the plant” in Thief River Falls, Minn., for death and dismemberment, the spared pair were chauffeured by Gruhl in a minivan to the capital on Monday. The turkeys took turns resting their heads on Gruhl’s shoulder, he says, and pecking his backside when they wanted water.

On Tuesday morning, the turkeys gave a news conference. Or, rather, they stood on a black rug in the Crystal Room off the Willard lobby as the media questioned their farmer.

A journalist asked whether the turkeys have distinct personalities, and Burkel said they did not, at least not when they were in a flock.

A journalist asked whether they liked pop music, and Burkel said he played them Vivaldi and John Mayer — presumably to get the turkeys used to hard-core strings and soft-core lyrics.

By this time, the White House had set up a Web site — an operational one, mind you — for the turkeys, whom it had named Popcorn and Caramel. The public was encouraged to vote for #TeamPopcorn or #TeamCaramel on social media, depending on which turkey looked like it deserved the title of “National Thanksgiving Turkey.” The vote wasn’t life-or-death, because both Popcorn and Caramel would be pardoned. And given the life span for these types of turkeys, both will probably be dead in two years or less anyway.

Standing adorably beside Burkel, a fourth-generation farmer, was Joni, his wife of 25 years, and his five handsome children, ages 5 to 19, who’ve done their share of overnight “load outs” and water-spill cleanups before the school day starts.

Turkeys are an unexceptional part of life for the Burkels, and yet they are now their tickets to an audience with the president of the United States. They went shopping for White House clothes in Fargo, N.D., since retail is scarce around Badger.

After the news conference turned into general mingling, Joni noticed a tiny puddle of feathery poop on the black carpet.

“Yuck, clean that up,” she said to no one in particular, which prompted a journalist to observe that no one will even notice. “I notice,” she said, “because at home someone would track that through the house.”

It’s a good instinct, especially when the next house on their itinerary was the president’s. The Burkels preceded President Obama out the front door of the White House on Wednesday afternoon, walking down the North Portico, past Popcorn (the chosen) and a display of mums and gourds, into the cold spew of a rain. The family stood near Badger High School’s senior class, all 16 of them, of which 17-year-old Andrea Burkel is a member. The class held fundraisers for two solid months to afford to travel as the turkey entourage. Being at the White House was “crazy,” they said, but the trip’s highlight may have been the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the students helped place a wreath.

The trip has “become about more than just the turkeys,” says senior Sarah Erickson, 17, “but the turkeys are how we got here.”

Popcorn’s behavior was immaculate, even as cameras flashed to greet Obama and his daughters, who flanked him at a rostrum. The presidency comes with “many awesome and solemn responsibilities,” Obama said. “This is not one of them.” He saluted Popcorn for his bravery and said Caramel, who lost the popular vote, was “already busy raising money for his next campaign.” There was a “Hunger Games” joke, and a nod to U.S. servicemembers, and then the delivery of “a full reprieve” off-mike. Obama, looking at the bird, said something about “cranberry” and “stuffing,” and concluded with “we wish you well.”

Popcorn and Caramel will spend the holiday season at Mount Vernon. After the New Year, they will take up residence at the two-acre Turkey Hill Farm at Morven Park in Leesburg, where they will share accommodations with Franklin, the resident bronze heritage turkey, who had better be prepared for boastful roommates.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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