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Culinary Curiosities: The Fanciful Tradition of the Wishbone

Wishes and holidays go hand in hand. You may be wishing that the turkey could roast a little faster, that your cousin doesn’t forget the pumpkin pie, or that you can find some new ideas for using up those leftovers. Maybe you are dreaming of more (or less) time with your loved ones. Whatever your hopes are, the tradition of breaking the turkey wishbone adds a bit of fun, even if your cousin did forget the pie.

Families have enjoyed the wishbone tradition for generations, but the origins go back pretty far—more than 2,400 years—all the way to the Etruscan people who lived in what is now Tuscany. This ancient people believed that birds had power to foretell the future. They observed how migratory birds returned every spring, heralding the season of growth and fertility. Hens clucked with the laying of eggs and roosters crowed with every dawn, indicating a potent connection to rebirth, abundance and prosperity. These powers, they believed, resided in the bones of birds.

Etruscans used chickens in a prophetic ritual called alectryomancy. A bird would be set in a grid or circle marked with letters from the Etruscan alphabet and scattered with grain. Scribes would take careful note of the areas where the bird would peck. Then the diviners would interpret the letters in some meaningful way for their community. Once the ritual was complete, the bird was slaughtered, eaten and the bones were dried.  Individuals would often hold and stroke the wishbone for luck.

The Romans adopted many of the Etruscan superstitions about the oracular powers of chickens, using alectryomancy to assess the best time to engage in military expeditions and using the wishbone for luck. But instead of simply touching the wishbone, the Romans introduced the practice of two people making a wish and breaking the bone to see who had the larger piece—and the luck that went with it. The Romans brought the tradition with them to Britain and the English carried it with them to the Americas, where wild turkeys were much more plentiful than chickens.

In Europe and England, the wishbone—properly known as the furcula, which is Latin for “little fork”—from geese, guinea hens and other fowl was also part of the tradition of luck and prophecy. In the middle ages on the Feast of St. Martin (November 11), geese were slaughtered as part of the final harvest and accounting. The goose’s wishbone was used to predict the severity of the coming winter: a darker or thicker bone meant severe cold, but a lighter color meant a milder season.

Today, wishbones are still seen as symbols of luck. And many Americans partake in the ritual of breaking the wishbone at Thanksgiving.
If you decide to make this part of your holiday feast, here are a few pro tips: First, be sure to dry out your wishbone so it will break quickly and easily. Three days or so should do the trick, but Southern Living magazine recommends popping it in the dishwasher with your dishes (just be sure to use the drying cycle) and it will be ready in about an hour. Also, you should consider removing the wishbone before you roast your bird. It will make slicing the breast much easier.  And, you won’t accidentally compost the wishbone after the meal.

If you really want to get your wish, experts suggest that you hold on as close to the top of the wishbone as you can. Also, if your opponent doesn’t forbid it, brace your thumb on the top flat part of the bone. You may also find that if you hold still and let the other person pull, it’s more likely that the bone will snap on their side due to the pressure. But all this sounds a little bit like cheating to me. Better to close your eyes, hold on to the bottom and see what happens. If the bone cracks evenly or into three pieces, everyone gets their wish. Even if you lose, well, there’s always leftovers, and maybe some more pie—if you’re lucky. 

Julie Brown-Micko was raised on sugar cereals and lots of hamburger casseroles, but survived and thrived in a Le Cordon Bleu culinary program.  A sometime writer, candy maker and pastry chef, she’s happiest combining her love of food and writing.  Her work has appeared in restaurants such as The Bayport Cookery and publications such as Minnesota Monthly and Foodservice News.

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