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Why the Biggest Thanksgiving Lie May Be the Turkey on Your Table

As our food has become more processed and industrialized, so has Thanksgiving dinner. Sadly, it's the turkey itself that has changed the most since the time of the Pilgrims.
 
 
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What could be more natural a pairing than turkey and Thanksgiving? For one day a year, we sit down with our family and friends to dine on thoroughly American, seasonal fare, just like the Pilgrims did, together with the Native Americans, when celebrating their first successful harvest.

Only, very little of that myth that we retell each year is true. Among the falsehoods are the turkeys who sit in the center of so many Thanksgiving tables -- these birds bear very little relation to the turkeys the pilgrims would have enjoyed -- if they did at all.

To start, the feast labeled as the "first Thanksgiving" likely was not that at all. The feast commemorated a treaty between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. The Pilgrims held many days of thanksgiving, but those involved prayer more than food. By the time America became a nation, thanksgiving dinners were common, and turkey was often a part of the meal. But so were chicken, goose, pork, lamb, duck, and beef, according to the many accounts we have of early thanksgivings. And these celebratory meals had no association (yet) with Pilgrims, nor were they necessarily held in November. For example, one day of thanksgiving was declared when America won its Revolutionary War.

The first person to associate the Pilgrims, Native Americans, and a festive meal involving turkey -- and to name it the "first Thanksgiving" -- was likely Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister in Boston, who published Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth in 1841. Merely 22 years later, Thanksgiving became a national holiday. The woman who sealed the deal was Sarah Josepha Hale, after she became famous for her novel Northwood; or, a Tale of New England, which devoted an entire chapter to describing Thanksgiving and ultimately became the model for what a Thanksgiving dinner ought to be. Hale embarked on a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and succeeded when President Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

But why was it turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie that we still eat today? According to Andrew F. Smith, author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, because they're cheap. (Well, at least the traditional meal is thoroughly American in that sense. Americans spend less disposable income than any other nation on food, and not just on Thanksgiving.) Smith says, "While many other main dishes had been tried, it was turkey that thrived, mainly because it was less expensive than the alternatives.... The traditional side dishes -- stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, succotash, corn bread, cranberries, and pies -- were inexpensive as well, so that Thanksgiving dinner was affordable to all but the poorest Americans." (Farmer Frank Reese, Jr. disagrees, saying Americans probably settled on turkey because once domesticated turkeys became the norm on farms in the mid-1800s, they would have been born in the spring and ready for slaughter around Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

Was it coincidence that these inexpensive foods were all of the New World, or were they perhaps inexpensive because they could all be produced locally? And yet, as our food has become more processed and industrialized, so has Thanksgiving dinner. In some cases, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as cranberries, which could once only be enjoyed as a wild food, are now cultivated commercially. But along the way, we've gotten canned cranberry sauce that retains the shape of the can after it's dumped out and boxed mashed potatoes. And, as turkey is king in a Thanksgiving meal, it's the turkey itself that has changed the most since the time of the Pilgrims.

We all know that, however turkeys feel about the fourth Thursday in November, it sure ain't thankful. Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States' Factory Farming Campaign, underscores this, saying that the vast majority of America's turkeys are subject to "a painful life and a painful death." Turkeys changed from their wild ancestors with domestication, but during the 20th century, the vast majority of American turkeys (about 20 percent of whom are eaten on Thanksgiving) took a turn toward freakish.

Domesticated turkeys took a long and circuitous route to go from Mexico to Europe and back across the Atlantic to New England. But their strange journey did not end there, as American breeders tinkered with them in the early- to mid-20th century, first developing the Broad-Breasted Bronze and later switching to the Broad-Breasted White, a similarly fast-growing and large-breasted breed that lacked the dark pinfeathers of bronze turkeys, providing better aesthetics. Even before the switch from bronze to white, commercial turkeys were no longer physically able to mate naturally. Artificial insemination "solved" that problem beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Reese, one of the most successful and famous turkey farmers in the U.S., says that as commercial breeders came up with more physical problems associated with the birds' fast growth, they came up with more and more ways of dealing with it, from artificial insemination to antibiotics to confinement.

The commercial breed satisfies the American demand for breast meat and agribusiness' demand for fast growth, but does so at the expense of the turkey truly being a viable animal that can survive and reproduce. The Broad-Breasted Whites who receive presidential pardons have gone to Disneyland to peacefully live out the remainder of their lives since 2005, but as of last Thanksgiving, half of the pardoned turkeys did not survive long enough to celebrate a second Thanksgiving. According to Reese, the birds are engineered to die. Shapiro put it differently, saying that commercial turkeys are "bred to suffer." The path to humane turkey isn't a better habitat or organic feed: It's in the genes.

Reese, who has raised turkeys for over 50 years, raises standard turkey breeds that have not changed to meet commercial needs over the course of the 20th century or beyond. His turkeys, like their ancestors, gain about a pound a week, taking 24 to 28 weeks (six to seven months) to reach slaughter weights. When dressed, his hens weigh 14 to 16 pounds and his toms (male turkeys) weigh 18 to 22 pounds. "That was the standard 50 years ago," he says.

But today, commercial birds grow at double that rate. Reese is interested in the nutritional difference between his turkeys and your average Butterball, saying that he's tested his chicken and found they contain significantly more protein and less fat compared to commercial breeds (even when the commercial breeds are raised free-range and organically).

While Reese is perhaps the best-known farmer who raises standard breeds of turkey (now commonly referred to as "heritage breeds"), he is not the only one. Around the country, many farmers are raising Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts, Standard Bronze, and other heritage breeds of turkey. Typically, they produce smaller birds (ranging from 10 to 20 pounds) with less white meat than those you'd find at the supermarket and charge between $4 and $5 (and sometimes as much as $7 or $8) per pound. At $4.50 per pound, a 16-pound bird would cost $72, compared to $5 or $8 for the same size bird at the supermarket. Is it worth it? Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of the book Righteous Porkchop, says that people who try her turkeys routinely tell her, "That was the best turkey I ever had!" As a once or twice a year splurge for a holiday, many feel that it's well worth it.

Nicolette and her husband Bill (formerly of Niman Ranch) began raising turkeys on their farm, BN Ranch, a few years ago, when they recognized the high interest among consumers but low supply of heritage birds. They knew that Reese has some of the best turkey genetics in the country, so when the opportunity to buy some of his poults (baby turkeys) came up, they went to Kansas and drove 36 straight hours back to Northern California with a car full of turkeys. They keep the turkeys they bought from Reese as a breeding flock, raising and selling the poults hatched each year at Thanksgiving.

Over and over, turkey farmers who raise heritage breeds told me their turkeys were not stupid. The myth that turkeys can drown in the rain is just that -- a myth. Niman said that from the first day her turkeys stepped outside, they had their natural instincts intact. When a bird of prey flew overhead, the turkeys flocked together and stood close to the guard dog. Many farmers bring their turkeys indoors in the evenings, but otherwise the turkeys would roost in the trees, where they are safe from most predators. Heritage turkeys, unlike commercial turkeys, are able to fly. (One farmer saw that as a disadvantage to heritage breeds, because by flying out of their fenced enclosure, her turkeys made themselves more vulnerable to predators.)

In an experiment for the University of Arkansas, Reese raised a flock of 40 Broad-Breasted Whites in exactly the same way he raises his own birds. He got the commercial poults in August, and found that the birds could not tolerate the hot Kansas weather as well as his own birds (who can survive in temperatures ranging from 20 below to 110 degrees). In the heat, the commercial birds had breathing problems. Even in more temperate weather, the birds were in poor health. They could not walk well, let along run, and they could not fly up to the roof of the coop like the heritage birds could.

"They wanted to be turkeys and do the things that turkeys do, but they couldn't. They physically couldn't," says Reese. Reese says that when he brings his own birds to the processing plant, the staff there (who are used to commercial turkeys) are surprised that his turkeys do not have bone fractures, cellulites, and open sores like their commercial counterparts do when they reach slaughter weight.

But, one still may ask, if a heritage breed turkey takes twice as long to grow as a commercial turkey, why do they cost so much more than twice as much? When I told Reese that a 16-pound Butterball turkey was going for $8 at my local supermarket, he replied that industry views Thanksgiving as a giveaway. They get much more money selling deli meats than they do selling whole turkeys. Imagine what Subway charges per pound of turkey when you consider the few ounces of cold cuts served on each sandwich. It's also possible that the supermarket is selling the turkeys for a loss in order to lure shoppers into their stores to do the rest of their Thanksgiving shopping.

For a farmer like Reese, most of the money he charges for his turkeys is spent long before Thanksgiving on hatching, feed, processing, and other costs associated with raising his turkeys. Despite the high price tag, he does not make very much profit per bird. He feels that the two ways a farmer can make ends meet while raising heritage breed turkeys is to stay small (around 50 turkeys) and do everything from hatching to slaughter oneself, or to raise more than 5,000 turkeys, at which point processing costs per bird decrease and supplies can be purchased for wholesale prices. This rang true for another farmer, who stopped raising turkeys altogether because after buying the poults from the hatchery, buying the feed, and paying for the slaughter, she was not able to make heritage turkeys profitable even when charging $8 per pound.

It may be the humaneness, the environmental concerns, or the sense of tradition that drive some people to try heritage turkeys, but farmer after farmer raved mostly about the taste. The meat is really rich, says Niman, who always has leftovers after Thanksgiving. She said her turkey also makes an amazing stock. Often, chefs try her turkeys and comment on their incredible flavor. Reese noted that when professional taste testers compared his birds to the commercial, grocery store variety, his birds won.

Is it worth it to you, to recapture an American tradition (even if it doesn't go back to the Pilgrims) by serving a heritage breed turkey this Thanksgiving, and possibly eating the best turkey you've ever had?

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
 
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