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The Great Turkey Debate: What's your Thanksgiving main dish?

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, as it's all focused on food. A traditionalist and a lover of everything about this holiday, from the concept of gratitude to cooking elaborate meals to Native Amerian tales to the artist's imagination of Pilgrim garb (knowing, of course, the inherent conflict of the romanticized tale of the first thanksgiving celebration -- well, I like a complex tale too), I've been cooking a full Thanksgiving meal almost every year since I was 19 years old. That year, I made a Kroger turkey and cranberry-and-orange sauce and mashed potatoes and turkey gravy and two kinds of pie.

At the time, I had no idea about the politics of turkeys. These I would learn later -- when I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in the winter of 2007-2008. I was already a farmer's market junkie, but this opened my eyes to the crazy modern history of poultry raising. I know it's kind of a weird way to go about making judgments, but the part that had me convinced was the whole chapter on turkey sex. (Yes. There was a whole chapter, pretty much, on turkey sex.) The turkeys that are for sale at every grocery store in the country right now are 95%+ the broad-breasted white variety -- one that has been carefully selected and bred for enormous breasts and fast growth. This breeding has left us with a turkey that's pretty much unable to have regular turkey relations. Like chickens, our turkeys are brought to us through artificial insemination.

They're also grown in big turkey pens that look something like the videos of riots at soccer stadiums. You know the ones? You're always afraid someone will be trampled. That's what routinely happens to turkeys (I know this is a fairly alarmist link, but there isn't much controversy about the underlying conditions in turkey farms; they're mostly like this). And besides the obvious inhumanity concerns, there is the fact that stressed, unhealthy birds are not the best choices for our table.

What's missing in this whole poultry agriculture race-to-the-top is (among various and serious biodiversity and environmental concerns), sadly, taste. When you buy that $1.99/pound turkey at the supermarket, it may be "natural" but it's not exceedingly delicious. Enter fancy cooking methods (deep-frying anyone?) and lots of butter and other things to make it palatable. Enter great difficulty for everyone in charge of a bird come Thanksgiving Day.

I've decided, for the past few years, to go for a heritage breed and/or a locally-grown, pasture-raised bird. It's super-expensive; my turkey this year will cost about $75 (I'm buying from Our Family Farm, who models their operation after Joel Salatin's principles, through the Know Thy Food buying club). But I think it's worth it, and to make up for that huge expense, I usually don't buy much other meat in November or early December. This is my big deal, and I stretch the turkey as far as I can, with leftovers and stock and such. As I do a lot of canning in July, August and September, I've usually spent a bunch of money in those months; so by the time November rolls around, my spending is low enough so that I don't feel too bad. Also, spending extra money for food is one reason why I don't have a car -- more room in the budget for occasional splurges. $100 or so for a Thanksgiving feast that I can enjoy for several days (or even weeks, for some of the bits I freeze) is something I can swing. (It also helps that, with a husband abroad and few family members who drink, my alcohol expenses are tiny.)

Whole Foods invited urbanMamas to a pre-holiday Thanksgiving tasting* -- they're doing one for the general public today from 5-8 p.m. at all their local stores (there's a suggested donation -- two cans of food at the Pearl store, and $5 to $10 at the other locations). The big reveal for me was the dark meat on the heritage turkey they served. I've never been much of a dark meat eater, but this was fantastic, moist and flavorful and everything I could ever want in a holiday turkey. I'm going heritage bird next year, for sure.

OK: position piece over, let's talk turkey, specifically, the options for turkey and vegetarian Thanksgiving main dishes. Having never made a vegetarian centerpiece, I don't have much to offer here, other than the usual casseroles (lentils, brown rice and winter squash seem to be popular ingredients) -- but if you have links to great centerpieces, pass them along, please!

  • Trader Joe's "All Natural" brined fresh young turkeys -- $1.99 a pound. These aren't the worst option in the world, but I don't think there's any guarantee these turkeys are raised in great conditions. They're "minimally processed with no artificial ingredients, never receive any antibiotics or growth hormones, and are raised on a diet of 100% vegetarian feed." From farms in Minnesota, California and Pennsylvania.
  • New Seasons Market Diestel turkeys -- from $1.99 a pound for "fresh free range" to $3.99 a pound for "organic heirloom turkeys" (these are the bronze breed). Diestel turkeys "are free to roam and breathe the crisp mountain air, are fed an all-vegetarian diet, and are free of hormones and antibiotics."
  • Whole Foods turkeys -- these range from ordinary at $1.99 a pound to $4.99 a pound for the heritage turkey I sampled: "Mary’s Free-Range Heritage Turkey comes from the Pitman Family Farm and are descended from the first breed of turkeys that existed in the United States. The birds are allowed to breed naturally, run and fly, resulting in more thigh meat and unmatchable flavor." According to the butcher at Whole Foods Pearl, this is the Narrangansett turkey, and is delicious -- but, not cheap. Interestingly, both Whole Foods and New Seasons sell the Diestel, but it's cheaper at New Seasons.
  • Heritage and pasture-raised turkeys at the Portland Farmer's Market -- there will be several markets over the next few weeks, as a few markets now do pre-Thanksgiving special dates. The Buckman Market, on SE 20th and Salmon, runs November 22 from 1-5 p.m. and the Montavilla Market, on 76th and Stark, runs November 20 from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. For you on the west side, the Hillsdale Farmer's Market is also November 20 from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Last year, I was able to get a turkey on the last farmer's market before Thanksgiving without reserving it, but it was really big -- 27 pounds. If you want something smaller, run don't walk to your favorite local farmer.
  • Buying clubs, $4 to $5 a pound. There are a few buying clubs which still have pasture-raised turkeys available, including Know Thy Food.

* I received some freebies from this event -- mostly local food items, including some gluten-free baking mixes and some Bluebird Grain Farms pilaf -- and I'm wondering if there are any local food aid groups that provide boxes of holiday food created specifically for those with special dietary requirements. Any thoughts? If not, anyone positioned to organize something like this?


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We always split the cost of a New Seasons turkey with my parents. But mainly I want to second the shout-out for Kingsolver's chapter on turkey sex. Hoo boy!

Haven't read the book, yet. I'll have to pick that up.

We don't have extended family nearby and our attempts to do a friends Thanksgiving fell flat. We have kids that don't eat turkey or any of the traditional sides. It was time to give up, we know when something doesn't work. Now we have the kids listen to Alice's restaurant with us on the way to Bagby hot springs where we have a great picnic and a soak. Hurray!

This will be our first Thanksgiving where we're not traveling "home" to family so it's just the four of us and none of us like turkey! We may roast a chicken or game hens. I'd love some new ideas!

We are a vegan family, largely for the reasons you outline. In my view, killing a "humanely-raised" animal is an oxymoron. Combine that with the environmental devastation caused by farming animals, and really the only humane way to eat is to exclude animals from your diet altogether. On thanksgiving, we celebrate how lucky we are to live in a place like PDX, where it's easy to be vegan, and we revel in what are side dishes for most.

I think we're going heirloom turkey since half of the family likes dark meat best. We will have family plus friends this year so I think it will have to be a larger turkey than I've cooked before which will make my husband's brining routine a bit harder. We will usually make a pot of posole as well which is a family tradition.

So many families are trying to make ends meet these days, and use their funds to allow them to spend time with each other this holiday season. Likely, not everyone is able to be so concerned about what store/farm the turkey was purchased, but rather whether or not they can even have one on the table. Thanksgiving, to many, is about spending time with family and friends, not about where the turkey comes from. Food can bring people together in wonderful ways, judgment about food does not.

We raised 3 turkeys in our NE PDX backyard this year in the same pen as our chickens. Two were ours and one we are raising for a friend. We already butchered and roasted one of them (the male-the neighbors were pretty sick of the constant GOBBLEGOBBLEGOBBLE from our backyard), and it was quite good, more flavorful than a typical store-bought turkey. We also made a huge batch of turkey enchiladas with the leftover roasted meat and lots of stock with the bones.
We got a miniature white turkey breed because the person at the feed store said that the heritage breeds get very large (40-50 lbs or more!) and we weren't sure if they would fit well in our pen (or oven for that matter). But after reading here about how delicious they are I might try to get some heritage poults next year if we do turkeys again. We will be butchering the other two turkeys a few days before Thanksgiving and one of them will be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner that we have planned with our friends.
I have enjoyed having the turkeys, they are impressive birds, even the plain white ones. They also seem quite dignified compared to the chickens, maybe just because they are so much larger and calmer.
I have no idea what we ended up paying per pound after feed costs but I think it can be safely assumed that we are probably not saving ourselves any money, this was more of an experiment to see what it's like to raise turkeys.

jessi, did your kids become attached at all to the turkeys? Your description of their temperment reminded me of Ben Franklin and his desire to see the turkey become our national symbol.

Kelly, we also raise chickens and rabbits for meat so the kids are used to the process and we have a pretty clear distinction between pets and "working" animals so to speak. Our daughter who is five and extremely un-squeamish is very interested in the process and likes to help butcher. So, no we haven't had an instance yet where they have gotten attached to an animal that was destined for the table. Bu they are only 2 and 5 so I know that might happen as they get older and form their own opinions about things. Actually we were reading Charlotte's Web the other night and I admit I was wondering if it would influence her to want to "spare" our animals!

years ago we always had an exchange student in the house - almost always from taiwan, japan or korea. we delighted in sharing thanksgiving with them as a holiday they had no frame of reference for, and usually the current exchange student would invite a gaggle of other exchange students. the first couple of years we cooked a turkey and a duck. (the duck just as a treat for students.) after a couple of years we realized we were the only ones eating turkey. so even though we don't have students these days, we usually eat duck. i'm not crazy about it, but the kids love it and it's a sweet reminder of some very good holidays in the last decade.

i'm interested in your question, kelly. we keep chickens for eggs and i've thought about what to do when their laying days are past. i eat meat and of course i know that animals die for that. but i confess the thought of eating animals that we've raised ourselves is hard. just this morning one of my kids (5-y-o) instructed plainly that we should kill them and eat them when the time comes. my kids are sweet, soft-hearted things in many ways. but they don't have the same sqeamishness that i have, apparently.

Up until two years ago we lived on a small farm and my kids generally understood the difference between the types of animals, adding there were also work animals in the area like horses, donkeys and sheep, llamas and alpacas (llamas used as guide animlas in the mountains) but every once in a while my kids would become attached to an animal...often someone elses...with difficult outcome. I mention it because my daughter, normally very pragmatic, became attached to a neighboring turkey (thus my knowledge of Ben Franklin) that she spotted while searching for quail nests. I just wondered if it was something about turkeys and if anyone else found their kids attached to them. They never liked the chickens and were terrified of the 'red headed chicken' (rooster),lol.

Lol, why does the turkey in the photo look so....disgusting? Sorry, I couldn't help myself,its just so weird looking.

Ha! I had that same thought, anon above me. Roasted turkeys always look like corpses to me. But undressed like this, it seems like a particularly bad scene from Six Feet Under. Regarding the question, some years we go all out to make a creative vegetarian main dish, and when its just us, we go for a tofurky. We're not major consumers of highly processed soy, but on a special occasion, a tofurky and that crazy canned cranberry jelly just hits the spot. It also helps me feel more festive when avoiding this Sarah Palin scenario: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYxn2vlhtWo

We do a Community Supported Pasture dealio with our neighbors out in Ridgefield at Inspiration Plantation (http://www.inspirationplantation.com). It's an awesome small farm that provides, eggs, chicken, turkey, lamb, pork and beef. They raise all but the beef right there on the farm and it's some good eating. We had two birds at our Canadian Thanksgiving potluck in October and both were picked to the bone. I pick up our next bird on Saturday, and can't wait. Hoping for some leftovers this time!

Also, a tofurky serves four or five and generally costs less than $12 on its own.

Thanks for the article! Opted for the Whole Seasons Mary's Organic Turkey. Checked out their web site because of your post and loved the videos. A turkey can certainly be a large expense but the cost per pound isn't much different than buying chicken. I have an amazing Maple Glazed turkey recipe that's to die for. Happy to post if anyone wants it. However, this is the year I'm going to learn how to turn anything that's left into turkey soup. Any recipes out there? WK, I certainly understand where you're coming from but I don't detect any judgment in this piece, just sharing of information. The writer is definitely the one who - over time - made this this city slicker (big big big city transplant to Portland) realize that it's not so hard to can food, maybe composting isn't weird and maybe having chickens isn't that crazy. She can also stretch a food dollar like nobody's business. We're not all from the "Portland culture" but this site has taken my love for my kids and turned it into a very unique learning opportunity...including learning about turkeys. Keep up the good work, uMamas!

I would love it if you could post that recipe VJL!

I'm not at all concerned about the humanity of how a bird I eat once a year is raised. (I have more pressing concerns). Doesn't humanity/inhumanity relate to humans after all? These animals are bred for food. I haven't read Kingsolver's book, but there are turkeys in a large pen in my neighborhood and they constantly fight with each other and they have plenty of room to roam.

To the more pressing concerns. My husband and I decided to have a potluck with family and friends. Some of our friends have diet restrictions (gluten free, soy free, vegan), hence the potluck. I decided to make the turkey (unstuffed), roasted root vegetables, vegan mashed potatoes, a side of stuffing, coconut whipped cream and parsnip cake. I hadn't made vegan mashed potatoes before so I tried it last week and they were great, however, my husband has since asked me to make them soy free also. I refused. Hemp, coconut, hazelnut or any other kind of milk substitute will make the potatoes awful. And the soy free people will have plenty of other things to eat. I kind of feel like I'm being ridiculous, but I have already made so many accommodations and am straying from the traditional dinner that my family expects.

The point is, we invited people for a potluck. "This is what we are having, bring what you would like." If you have a sensitivity to something don't eat it. Or do eat it and see how a small amount of soy will affect you, which is how a proper elimination diet works.

I stand corrected (by myself). Humanity extends itself to animals as well.

I'm just cracking myself up over here, because I've seen lots of little siblings constantly fighting with each other, and they often have their own rooms. That must mean ... oh wait. Humanity.

Anyway, if someone who wasn't vegetarian invited me to a Thanksgiving potluck, I'd expect that person to cook the Thanksgiving foods that they like, including creamy, buttery, non-vegan mashed potatoes. If I went to a vegan's house for Thanksgiving, I wouldn't expect them to make a bird. It's nice when the host is thoughtful, and it sounds like you have been. When I go to a potluck, I never assume that I'm going to like or eat anything that wasn't cooked by me. And then I'm always surprised delighted. I'm sure your guests will be, too. Don't let your man stress you out - it will be a fun party.

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