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.
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?