The time is nearing for a quintessential American tradition—eating turkey in November. There is the fuss over the stuffing, the sauces, the mashed potatoes and the pumpkin pie, but the turkey always remains the centerpiece. Why turkey? Why not the medieval peacock, skinned, baked, and redressed in its jeweled plumage? Why not a roast boar with an apple in its mouth? Why not leg of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary?
Traditions can be fickle things, but traditions rooted in agrarian rhythms usually stem from something practical. Lamb has been customary fare for Easter time, harking from an age when lambs were born in mid-winter and weaning was a time to decide which lambs would be kept to enhance breeding stock and which would serve as table fare. Such is the same reasoning behind “suckling pig,” for once a piglet is transitioned to solid foods, there has to be enough to go around. If a family would have provisions for only five pigs from a litter of seven, then two would be eaten at weaning—allowing the litter’s siblings to thrive on what was available instead of compromising them all through a shortage of resources.
While chickens were present in medieval Europe, turkeys are native only to North America. It is not surprising that they became associated with distinctly American holidays. Turkey poults (chicks) are typically born in springtime, and by late autumn they have matured through their gangly teenage stage into a comfortable body size without being as tough or chewy as older adults—a perfect stage for roasting.
That is why, this week, our family is out in the cold, plucking turkeys with our freezing little fingers. It’s all part of the process of having farm-fresh, heritage turkeys ready for Thanksgiving dinner.
Butchering isn’t fun. I don’t think I have met a farmer who particularly enjoys butchering. Often, it is a sad and sobering affair. But most folks who don’t give up after the second or third year of processing their own domestic meats hold a respectful appreciation for this part of the agrarian cycle. If every chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, calf or piglet ever born had survived to old age, there wouldn’t be one speck of vegetation or bit of untamed land left! If people are going to be omnivores, then butchering is part of the process—but it can be a respectful part.
It starts with the animals. In CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations), breeds are selected for very specific traits—fast growth, heavy muscling, and tolerance of overcrowding. Genetic engineering is now producing piglets that are perpetually depressed and show little resistance to being trapped in small metal pens all their lives. Turkeys or chickens who resort to cannibalistic behaviors due to overcrowding have most of their upper beak removed (a cruel process known as “debeaking”).
On many small farms, however, heritage breeds of animals that carry a wide array of bio-diversity and foraging traits still thrive. They have room to move freely, explore their environment, have plenty of fresh air, and express their innate animal-ness. Ewes may be selected for excellent mothering instinct and easy births, chickens for winter heartiness and beautiful coloring, hogs for gentle manners and excellent body type, and turkeys for lustrous plumage and pasturing abilities.
The Giant Whites of the turkey industry have one motive—eating. Their full-time occupation is stuffing their faces as much as possible in order to grow the enormous breast meat that the turkey industry covets. The poor things hobble about, top heavy with a wide gate, and though they are impressively fast-growing, they are equally lacking in common sense—even for turkeys. They are poor foragers, have fragile health (especially as poults), and are prone to drowning in thunderstorms. It is not a wonder that most commercial turkeys are raised indoors in controlled environments.
In contrast, while my heritage breed Jersey Buff turkeys grow slower and dress out with a slender shape, they are refreshingly easier to tend because they are hearty, curious, and tenacious. These cinnamon-colored birds with long, knobby necks scratch and peck, strut and dance, or fly up onto high roosts—a considerable contrast to the blobby obliqueness of their commercial white counterparts. Heritage turkeys are able to fully express their turkey-ness, with their luminous dinosaur eyes and eager “Gap-Gap” speech.
Heritage turkeys are also gentler on the land—consuming less grain and more grass in their diet. Their meat also has unparalleled flavor and texture. Many of our turkey clients have commented on the deliciousness of our Jersey Buffs in comparison with the meat from commercial breeds.
Choosing breeds responsibly impacts the life experience of the domestic animal. Their living conditions and care are equally important. Because I choose to be an omnivore, I also choose to create a nurturing, positive environment for my livestock. Genetically engineered depression doesn’t sound like a fulfilling meal. I want my supper to have had a wonderful life with only one bad day (one bad moment, really). I wouldn’t mind going through life with only one bad day!
And then there is the end-of-life ceremony as well. I won’t get into the more-or-less gory details, but today’s homestead poultry butchering can be very clean, swift, and respectful. An example is shown on Joel Salatin’s farm in the documentary “Food Inc.” We regularly invite our poultry clients to view the butchering process, which surprises them by being more intriguing than revolting. Often, the cameras come out, clicking away to document the process. There is no screaming, no headless running, no trauma. On our farm, we believe that transparency is important for building meaningful relationships with the people who choose our food, which is why we invite such interactions, even during such a physically demanding operation.
Butchering isn’t something to hide in the corner and forget. Respecting the process and life of the animals are part of being an honorable omnivore. Shunning this facet of agrarianism only leaves us vulnerable to disrespectful and un-transparent situations. In essence, know the animals, know the farmer, know the process—at least enough to make an informed decision as to whether this is the right choice, ethically, for you and your family.
So, returning to the original question, why turkeys? Eating turkey in November is a way to reduce livestock populations to select breeding groups for overwintering (the hardest time of year, traditionally, to feed large numbers of animals). Turkeys are also well equipped to supply a larger gathering of family with nourishment on short notice. They are easier to process than red meats but larger than chickens. Turkey Toms also show a stunning display—not unlike peacocks—which adds its own sense of regality to the dining affair. Roast turkey, surely, is a handsome feast.
This November, as you gather with family and kin, take some time to remember the life behind your meal and offer thanks to those who tended it. I’m off to feed the turkeys. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com