Two weeks. Can you believe it’s almost time for Thanksgiving? I love Thanksgiving...I love the traditions, the enforced watching of the entire Macy’s Day Parade until Santa arrives. (I’ve been known to tear-up on more than one occasion.) I love making pilgrim hat cookies for the kids from marshmallows dipped in chocolate and stuck onto a chocolate cookie brim. I love sneaking bites of cold dressing, salmonella be damned. I love the pomp and circumstances of presenting the turkey and everyone getting “piecy bites,” as my dad called them, as the turkey is carved. I even remember to count my blessings on Thanksgiving, and I hope we’re teaching our kids gratitude, too.
Last year, though, was the first time I cooked a turkey. My parents always hosted us for holiday meals, working together to ensure their herd was properly stuffed. But when my mom’s Alzheimer’s progressed, my dad became the solo chef, with my sisters and me contributing side dishes. Still, the turkey was his domain.
Although my dad’s efforts were wonderful, he began to take risks with food. Not intentionally, of course, but he was getting older and forgetful, worrying about my mom. He would begin preparing food for our family’s Saturday night gatherings on Wednesday or Thursday. We would find food in his refrigerator that was long expired. Potatoes in the pantry turned to liquid. We were nervous about his health...and honestly, about our health, too.
So, to take the pressure off my dad and to ensure the well-being of our family, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner last year. I know that seems like an oxymoron, and I’m sure a few of my family members probably worried for their stomaches with me as head chef. Still, it was time. I was a little embarrassed that I had never cooked a turkey and decided that I needed to step up to the plate. I must say, with the exception of a mashed potato fiasco (ironic, as I usually make pretty good mashed potatoes), I was pretty proud of myself.
This year, I’m sad to say that there’s no battling my dad for control of Thanksgiving dinner. He died in May. Maybe we should have sucked it up and let him cook last year. He was always a much happier host than guest.
Now, I’m in a bit of a quandry. While I would love to prepare a locavore Thanksgiving, traditions are important, particularly this year. I’m not sure that my family is ready to eat Carolina rice instead of mashed potatoes and gravy. Instead, I’m again deciphering the photocopied recipes my mom gave to my sister, Marsha, when she prepared her first Thanksgiving meal. The recipes are faded, and I wish I could ask my mom why she and dad felt the need to get up at 7 a.m. to get that bird in the oven...when we never ate until 6 p.m. While I won’t get an answer from my mom, I’m glad that she’s still here.
Our Thanksgiving meal won’t be a complete showcase of local producers, but I am trying to add some local, green elements without banishing traditions. Today, we’ll focus on the star of the show:
In our effort to support our local farmers, I’ve ordered a local bird. He’s just down the road at Live Oak Farms (www.liveoakfarmsllc.com), awaiting his demise. I’m a little concerned, because we’ve always been a Butterball family. You should have seen my sisters’ faces when I told them that we’re eating an all natural, sustainable, pasture-raised turkey. I think Marsha’s afraid she’d be assigned to plucking duty. I can honestly say--if I needed to pluck a turkey, we’d be eating Butterball.
I’ve already had a nightmare about this turkey. I dreamed I forgot to pick it up and found myself racing through Publix, searching for a turkey on Thanksgiving Day at 4:30 p.m....and trying to thaw and cook it for a family dinner at 6. I think I’m getting a bit OCD about the turkey. Then, when talking with my friend Laura, who also ordered a local turkey (from Native Meats--www.nativemeats.com), I felt a panic attack surfacing when she mentioned brining. Brining? What have I gotten myself into? Do I need a back-up bird?
Truly, though, why does my family--including me--have such a phobia about a local, all natural turkey? Why is there such pressure for the perfect bird? I know it’s the centerpiece of the meal, the proverbial star attraction...but it’s not like we’re going to starve if I screw it up.
It’s a tricky issue, talking about mass-produced poultry when the holidays are around the corner. I’ve seen and read enough about industrialized poultry to permanently change my purchasing habits, but I’m not going to share the (horrifying) details here. The reality is--plenty of people will buy factory farmed turkeys, and I’m not going to be responsible for ruining your appetite. If you want to know what I’m talking about, check out www.farmsanctuary.org...but be warned.
The other issue is--I have no idea what kind of turkey I’ve reserved. I requested a 20+ pound turkey, and a turkey is a turkey is a turkey...right? Well, that’s true for the majority of turkeys--99 percent of turkeys raised in America are from a single breed--”Broadbreasted White.” These turkeys are produced because of their large, white, meaty breasts. Unfortunately, in our quest for lots of white meat, these poor birds are bred so top-heavy that they can’t fly nor reproduce naturally. Without the aid of humans performing artificial insemination, Broadbreasted White factory farmed turkeys would be extinct in one generation, according to the website www.sustainabletable.org.
I ordered a happy turkey, one that actually lived a nice life outside, scratching around for grubs, bugs and grasses instead of ingesting only grains and antibiotics...but I had no idea the various turkeys that are available when I placed my order. So, to save you some headaches in buying your own happy bird, here’s a cheat sheet for purchasing a turkey:
Think of the masses of turkeys at your local supermarket. These birds are factory farmed, raised in a facility that provides protection from predators and bad weather. Because of the crammed living quarters, factory farmed turkeys receive antibiotics to control diseases.
Conventional turkeys don’t have much of a turkey life--they’re inside for the duration. I promised, though...I’m not getting into the nitty gritty of their sad lives. I’ve definitely eaten my share of conventionally raised turkeys.
USDA Certification is key for an organic turkey. The turkey must be raised on land that has been free of pesticides and other prohibited substances for three years. The food provided to the turkey must be pesticide free. For more information on organic rules and regulations, check out the www.usda.gov
Unfortunately, it’s tough for small farmers to receive organic certification. The same individuals who raised organic produce or meats before it became trendy now must compete with lobbyists representing industrial food manufacturers--who also crave the “organic” label to attract today’s green-savvy customer. Organic certification, when run by bureaucrats, is expensive and time consuming. Plus, the factory farms put pressure on the government to relax standards so they can meet the organic certification criteria.
Many small, organic farmers, who actually exceed the USDA organic standards, refuse to invest in the organic certification process. Instead, they promote themselves as “sustainable.” Sustainable is good. I would definitely buy food from a local sustainable farmer, because I know that’s code for organic, humane, environmentally responsible farming.
You’ve heard of heirloom tomatoes...but heirloom turkeys? Heirloom turkeys’ ancestors pre-date the industrial food era and are important for genetic diversity. With the Broadbreasted White factory farmed turkeys, which are genetically identical, an illness could quickly spread through that breed and eliminate it. Heirloom turkeys’ diversity ensures the survival of the species.
The meat is also unique--firm texture, with light meat an “almond” color. These birds take longer to raise, and they are more expensive than conventionally raised turkeys. But--they also live a happy turkey life: they are raised outside, freely roam on pasture, reproduce naturally, and eat a varied, natural diet. Most heritage breeds are near extinction. Slow Foods USA (www.slowfoodsusa.org), an organization committed to supporting “good, clean, fair food,” works to increase the awareness of heritage breeds among consumers. It’s Economics 101: by increasing demand for heritage breeds, farmers will increase production of heritage breeds, thus ensuring their survival. Check out www.localharvest.org to find sources in your area for heritage breeds.
Turkeys are raised outside, ensuring they eat a natural diet. Their meat may be richer in omega oils because of their grass diet.
Be careful with the free-range label. Poultry with a free-range label means that the birds are not confined to cages, and the USDA requires they have access to the outdoors. However, as long as one small door provides access to a small dirt or gravel yard, rather than a pasture, these birds qualify as “free-range.” Many producers exceed the limited requirements--but read the labels or talk to your local provider.
Who knew there are so many turkey options?
I ordered our turkey before I really thought too much about it. My goal was to support a local farmer, and I’m feeling good about that, at least. I’ve e-mailed Allison at Live Oak Farms to find out exactly what I ordered. I’m sure she and her husband will have a good laugh at my turkey trauma. I already e-mailed her a few days ago to find out the specifics...when to pick it up, will it be fresh or frozen? I also shared with her the story of my turkey nightmare--at least I provided her with a good laugh!
Where do you buy your turkey? Have you ever purchased from a local provider and if so, where? For those of you foodies--please tell me, what is brining??? I think I’d better Google that ASAP.
So, my feasting friends...tomorrow I’ll tackle something a little easier...local desserts. I think I can pull off a local dessert without breaking tradition.