Thanksgiving Turkeys

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 21, 1997

Historically, Thanksgiving is a celebration of the harvest's abundance with a meal whose roots go back more than 300 years. It is one of those rare occasions when people pay attention to the reality behind the main course. Americans who ordinarily think nothing of eating hamburgers, steak or chicken nuggets, suddenly realize that an animal must lose its head if they're going to eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

Turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving because the wild variety existed then in great numbers. Flocks of over a hundred were common. For centuries before, Native Americans had managed this ecosystem in a way which produced an abundance of the things they needed in order to live, including many delicious plants and animals. The early English settlers were astounded by the bounty of the "New World."

Turkeys are truly American birds. Domesticated breeds descend from birds taken from North America to Europe by the early Spanish colonists. The English settlers brought back domesticated turkeys with them, as well as guns, European agriculture and export forestry. Fifty years after the first Thanksgiving celebration, wild turkeys were rare in Massachusetts colony. By the time of the American Revolution, hunting and habitat destruction had pushed them to the brink of extinction. Turkeys were known only as domesticated birds at that time, and amusingly, were thought to have originally come from the country Turkey.

Recently, wild turkeys have been quite successfully reintroduced to the Northeast which attests to their fitness for this ecosystem and to changing land uses. We see many wild turkeys along the Wilbur Cross Parkway and in New Haven parks. We also hear and see them on our farm.

The four broadbreasted-bronze turkeys we're raising spend a lot of time hanging around the yard these days. They are so gentle and beautiful. They greet visitors and follow them. The three toms clearly display their rank with different degrees of coloration on their ever-changing head ornaments. They spread their magnificent feathers, many with a gorgeous metallic sheen which changes from copper to bronze to burnished gold in the sunlight. They peck idly at plants and things in the soil, but mostly, they just hang out. Visitors ask us, "Are they pets or are they food?"

We raise a few turkeys each year to serve at festive celebrations. This Thanksgiving, we're thrilled to be able to share with our parents and our children together.

We would never buy turkey from the store. Before we raised our own, we bought from local farmers. That was after we learned about the industrial conditions under which supermarket turkeys are raised and processed, not to mention the negative effects of those large-scale enterprises on small farms and the environment.

However, once we had tasted our own, very-fresh, free-range turkeys, about the only other option for us would be to roast a stuffed squash.

Baby turkeys arrive at the feed store as day-old hatchlings in July, about the same time the wild babies hatch. With proper care, and a bit of luck, the little balls of fluff become pretty big about now. When they're gone, they'll leave behind a richly fertilized yard, pleasant memories and some truly delicious meals.

"Thanksgiving savings" screams the headline on the full-color supermarket flyer. On the front page, frozen turkey is 59 or 69 cents a pound depending on brand. Fresh turkey is 68 or 89 cents a pound and frozen Grade A Turkey Breasts are 99 cents a pound. This is a different kind of abundance. These turkeys, produced by industrial agriculture seem cheap in the store. However they take advantage of many costly energy, agricultural and tax subsidies, and they leave behind big environmental and social messes.

Even supermarkets realize that some people might be interested in alternatives to industrial turkeys. Its flyer suggests: "Native, Fresh, Locally Raised All-Natural Turkeys." I learned that a fresh turkey from a farm in Avon or Easton, raised more naturally, in smaller batches, costs twice as much per pound as the advertised brands. The Connecticut birds eat different feed and probably have more fresh air and sunlight than the brand-name ones. They also aren't injected with oil to make them juicy. Their realistic price might actually allow the farmer to earn a living in the process.

It is critically important that we become more conscious of our food choices and their effects.

This year be thoughtful as well as thankful at your celebration.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.