From a safe distance at Disney's Animal Kingdom, I watched a momma and her three cubs snack on something fowl. They tore into the meat, chewing down to the bone, maneuvering around cartilage to get at every morsel.
Nearby, the poppa removed the skin from his portion of the feast and popped it into a trash can.
This fair-haired British family of five was consuming, for the first time, the ubiquitous theme-park snack: the turkey leg.
"I used to feed them to my dog," says Paul Scott, father of the carnivorous clan.
This fact does not seduce me, a confirmed non-leg man, although Scott's three young daughters appeared to find them finger-licking good. The overgrown snack is too messy, too Cro-Magnon, too mysterious for my taste.
But, looking around almost any Central Florida theme park, I declare myself in the minority.
Turkey-leg stands are scattered everywhere. Folks go hog-wild for them on the edge of Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure, at a SeaWorld Orlando lakeside stand, at a cabin at Epcot's American Adventure. I saw a woman shred a leg at Holy Land Experience.
Disney says it sells 1.5 million pounds of turkey legs a year, and that translates into pop-culture appeal: Disney guests buy T-shirts emblazoned with a turkey-leg design — and Rice Krispies treats molded in the shape of the turkey legs.
What am I missing? What's their draw? The taste? The smell? The carefree, "I'm-on-vacation" attitude they represent?
The addictive qualities of emu meat? (More on that later.)
"It's like an ice-cream cone, but it's meat; it's better," says Amanda Griffin, visiting Animal Kingdom from Cape Cod, Mass. Her brother, Justin Griffin, likes the on-the-go convenience ("It's good marketing") and the taste.
"It's not dry. It's dark meat. It goes good with beer," he says.
The hands-on, extreme throwback feel appeals to Jennifer Warren of Easton, Pa.
"When are you ever given the option to be caveman-like?" she says.
"With the turkey, I can walk, I can gnaw, I can pull pieces off, I can put it down," he says. "And I just love salty, smoky, meaty. … It's an American classic."
But it's not emu, Zimmern says, despite persistent rumors that park guests are eating another kind of flightless bird other than turkey. He speaks from emu experience, having eaten emu meat in Australia.
"I can put everyone's mind at rest. It can't be emu. It's too big," he says. "And the meat would be a little more beefy. Emu has the consistency of turkey leg but the flavor of roasted veal. It's got mild beefiness to it and a little more metallic."
An emu leg would be about eight times the size of a turkey leg, says Tim Williams, director of media productions at Gatorland, a longstanding South Orange Blossom Trail attraction with a handful of emu on its property.
"If you're going to walk around with an emu leg in a theme park and chew on it, you'd have to get a cart with wheels to push that thing around. They're huge," he says. Gatorland doesn't sell turkey legs — or, for that matter, emu legs.
Although they may not be emu-esque, the turkey legs have gotten bigger. Since Disney started selling them in the early 1990s, the amount of meat has increased more than 50 percent, says Robert Adams, executive chef at Magic Kingdom.
"We started out with around a 22-ounce turkey leg. Today, we currently average about 34 ounces," Adams says. "That's why we started calling them 'jumbo' on the signage."
Bigger portions can translate into higher calorie counts. Nutritional-information requests at several turkey-leg stands and guest-relations desks yielded no answers. Online calorie-counters list smaller legs but not the jumbo-size. WebMD.com, in an article about food at fairs, festivals and amusement parks, reported that a "giant turkey leg" has 1,136 calories and 54 grams of fat.
The increased size can be attributed to a worldwide increase in turkey demand, Adams says. For the most part, consumers want white breast meat, so growers are raising bigger turkeys, he says.
Bottom line: We can't have bigger turkey breasts without bigger turkey legs.
(For the record, Adams officially confirms the snacks are not made of emu. "We hear that all the time," he says. "They're real turkeys. It's what they are.")
Adams sees turkey legs as part of a couple of culinary trends, including the street-food phenomenon.
"It seems to be even more popular with the economy the way it is. People are eating smaller sizes — snack-type versus entrée," he says.
There's also a comfort-food factor. People are at home with the flavor, Adams says.
"They're cured similar to ham, with sugar and salt," he says. "Mainstream America is very familiar with that."
And now, part of American culture, says Travel Channel's Zimmern.
"It's very culture-specific. It's Americana. It's state fair-carnival-theme park," he says. "It just fits."
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