Lots of people have a bone to pick with Thanksgiving. Specifically, with turkeys’ wishbones.
In many households, the breaking of the wishbone either is hallowed ritual, a fast track to sibling battling, a corny rite that Uncle Ernie insists upon supervising, or a best intention often forgotten in the post-feast coma. And woe to the unsuspecting in-law who tosses the gnarly bone in the trash. That only happens once.
People have been tearing apart poultry bones for thousands of years. (So it’s not just Uncle Ernie’s weird deal.)
Ancient Romans believed that chicken bones held the power of good fortune. When two people pulled apart a wishbone, the person left with the larger piece got the good luck, or a wish granted.
Little wonder, then, that the tradition prevailed through centuries, although history notes that the term “wishbone” is an Americanism, coined in the 1850s for the practice of making a wish on a bone.
A word about the bone itself: It properly is called the furcula, which is Latin for “little fork,” from the shape formed by the juncture of a bird’s two clavicles. The fused bone helps make the skeleton strong enough for flight. (Trot this out during a lag in dinner conversation today. You’re welcome.)
Elmer Sprick of Lake City, Minn., remembers a “spirited competition” among his 11 siblings for the privilege of breaking the wishbone.
“The ones with the longest arms usually got it, dried it and picked a naive younger sibling to break for the wish,” said Sprick, who’s 87. “Being the second youngest, I soon learned that if one holds the thumb against the upper part of the wishbone during the break, he or she will get the opportunity to make a wish.”
The rules of engagement
Ah, if only it were that simple. Given that wishbone-tugging is a contest of sorts, there are rules (of sorts).
Ask a smattering of people about wishbone protocol and you can see where the trouble begins. Joan Donatelle of Eden Prairie said you can only use pinkie fingers, and the trick is to “hold it higher up near the point where the two sides join. Wait — I shouldn’t tell the secret!”
Bonnie West of Minneapolis said they could only grasp the flat tips of the wishbone. “Everyone knows that the further up you hold on, the better chance you have at winning,” she said. “Holding up on the rounded bone was cheating.”
It may come as no surprise that the website for Men’s Health includes directions for “How to Win at Wishbone.”
The strategy here advises grasping one limb of the bone “between your thumb and forefinger as close as possible to the base of the V” — which, of course, is grounds for charges of cheating.
They continue: “Let your opponent do the work. Simply hold the wishbone — the other guy can tug. He’ll probably pull out and up, which will shift the breaking point from the center to his side. Stand firm and you should watch the bone break in your favor most of the time.”
Betcha there’s post-break analysis, too.
Wishes come true
The key step is letting the bone dry for a period of time. How long? Views differ.
“Our tradition through the years is to dry the bone, and then the next year it’s broken,” said Laurie Wilson Spencer, of Edina. “Having three kids, it was Rock-Paper-Scissors to get to be one of the two to break it.”
Spencer said she still runs across turkey wishbones in a drawer, “so we may have forgotten the tradition some years!”
Ann Verme of Minneapolis perhaps speaks for many: “I am ashamed to tell you how many wishbones have piled up in our kitchen, all ignored, all dusty. Sheesh.”
Some families let the bone dry until Christmas, while others advance the action in a warm oven.
The penalty for impatience? A wishbone that doesn’t snap, but bends and bends and bends with no resolution.
As for wishes coming true, lore says that the wish must never be spoken, so it’s hard to determine a wishbone’s power.
Sprick, however, has no doubts.
“Now that I am 87, I can look back and realize that most of my wishes have come true,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Foremost are 65 years of a good marriage with the same woman, good health and a reasonable number of Green Bay Packer victories.”
He has a point, no bones about it.