Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Turkey Made To Do the Job

It's my job, this Thanksgiving, to cook the turkey and to do the gravy, and I have been studying up for the task.

My bird is 22.5 pounds, is not frozen, and will be basted, and foil-hatted beginning very early Thursday morning. At a temperature of 325 degrees, it should take about 5 hours to cook the bird.

Since my mother has expressed some concern about my gravy-making abilities, I have carefully culled through the literature to learn a few tricks, and I have purchased a can of cream of chicken soup, two packages of turkey wings, and a small box of instant mashed potatoes as my "secret weapons" for success. We shall see if it is enough to overcome my natural culinary incompetence.

The modern Turkey was bred to be eaten -- it has no wild equivalent. To call it Meleagris gallopavo is an insult to the wild bird, which is both cunning and adaptive, and which can actually fly a bit.

The modern farm-bred bird, the so-called "Broad Breasted White," is a bio-engineered animal with an enormous body and breast, and it can barely waddle. 

In fact, my bird is to large that had it not met its timely end to serve my needs, it probably would have died on its own within a month or two due to the strain on its heart.    This is not a bird bred for health or longevity; it is a bird bred to die young, with a lot of meat on its bones.

Like most turkeys, my bird was almost certainly a product of artificial insemination due to the fact that farm turkeys, like English Bulldogs, are too big to reliably mate on their own. 

Yes, this is a real job; grabbing big Tom turkeys, flipping them over, and stroking their cloaca until a bite of semen is extruded and then aspirated up a vacuum straw afixed to the finger of the worker.  The reverse, of course, is done for female turkeys whose fertile eggs are then wisked off to waiting incubators.  A single insemination is good for a month of fertile eggs,

My bird was probably beak-trimmed within a day of its incubator hatching, and from birth to death it had a steady supply of good grain and clean water.   This is a turkey that never saw cold, flood, fox, coyote, raccoon, or bobcat. It never saw a parasite or a disease.  My turkey is a bird with a health plan, even if that health plan does come with a "death panel" at the end of its life.

The animal rights folks will tell you that farm-bred turkeys have a miserable life, but I am not sure I agree. Sure, they may have their beaks trimmed, but so do a lot of folks in Hollywood.  Funny how it's OK for humans to have nose jobs and tummy tucks, breast implants and face lifts, pierced nipples and tribal-art tattoos, but its a horror to trim a beak on a chicken or dock a tail on a dog. 

Of course, some folks will say my Turkey lived an "unnatural life" in a massive shed crowded with other Turkeys. Right. But what is a "natural" life for a turkey that is already so far removed from nature? Why am I supposed to feel bad that this bird, and all its incubator brethren, lived to a large size in a secure shed rather than died at the age of one or two-weeks, drowned by flood, or predated on by fox or hawk?  

My bird was born and raised at Plainville Farms in Pennsylvania and was raised on a pure vegetarian diet and without antibiotics. At a weight of 22.5 pounds at the end of its life,it had four or five square feet of room to move about in. No, that's not much. On the other hand, if people delivered me all the ice cream and steak I wanted, I might not venture too far from the couch myself.

To be clear, a turkey farm is not supposed to be Disney World; it's supposed to produce a fat and healthy bird as quickly as possible, and with a minimum of fuss and expense.  

My bird was bred for a purpose, and that purpose is in the oven right now.

There is a lot of talk these days about "Heritage Turkeys."  

A "Heritage Turkey" is nothing but a marketing scam.   This is failed farm stock being raised in a failed farm system, and the price you pay for maintaining this failure is somewhere between $7 and $10 a pound. 

I am not opposed to folks buying Heritage Turkey -- it's still a free country.  But let's be clear that what is being bought here is not meat; it's philosophy.  It's romance.  And in the end, what you get is a dead turkey, and a higher price, and a bird that, by most accounts, is not as tasty as a modern Broad Breasted White.   Is there a win in any of that?  If so, I cannot see it.


Retrieverman said...

Having eaten both mass-produced strains of turkeys and wild ones, I can tell you that much prefer the flavor of the wild bird. I've not eaten a heritage bird, but I've been told their flavor approaches that of the wild ones.

In my Gestalt connotation, a turkey is a wild animal that flies, is very hard to kill, and is black in color. It's not a giant white bird that cannot breed because its breast is too big.

Of course, I'll be eating the latter today. It may be the more efficent producing bird than the rest, but it's not the best tasting.

I also remember reading that the genetic diversity of the mass-production birds is very poor, which is itself a bit of problem should these strains ever be susceptible to a particular disease. The breeding of heritage birds may not be economically efficient, but it is necessary to have some kind of reserve population.

One of my favorite things to do is watch wild turkeys cross the river. They actually fly across it as if they were jumbo jets.

I think if you've tried the tast of the wild bird, you'd see what I mean. (BTW, the wild birds of the Eastern subspecies are a bit inbred anyway and were save only through outcrossing with flighted domestic strains.)

Inbreeding in tame turkeys:

"That turkey DNA is the key to distinguishing wild turkeys from the kind we usually eat. 'Domestic turkeys are very inbred, all the lines of domestic turkeys are very highly inbred,' Mock explained."

HTTrainer said...

Happy Thanksgiving.
I happen to agree with the idea of a heritage breed or heritage seeds for my home garden. But, good luck with the turkey from the industrial farm.

PBurns said...

If I was raising my bird in the back yard, I might go for a Heritage bird. Of course, with terriers I would not have ANY bird past the third week, so there is that little problem... ;)

"Heritage" birds failed in the marketplace in the past, and at $200 for a Thanksgiving day bird of the sized I have, I do not see them as having much impact in the marketplace in the future.

Of course, a Heritage bird is downright cheap compared to hunting one, after you figure in the cost of a hunting license, gun, amunition, time in the field, etc.


Gina said...

Have had all three -- industrial turkey, "heritage" (a couple different breeds) and wild. Liked the taste of the wild, the fattier "mouth feel" of the heritage, especially the Narragansett. The heritage birds did taste more like wild than like the industrial. Industrial turkey? Tasteless and bland, after you've had the others. Pass. But then you well know how I feel about CAFOs, on so many levels.

Heritage breeds as failed farming? Well, I suppose so if all you value is industrial scale, until some plague wipes out all those genetically identical meat-growing machines -- and the ones who survive die because they cannot reproduce.

My friend Jan's first assignment at a small-town newspaper after graduating from college was to do a series on people with "interesting jobs." She's a professor now, and the professional "turkey masturbator" is her all-time favorite example of the things people get assigned to cover when they first start out.

Our Thanksgiving gathering is Saturday, owing to firefighter brother's work schedule. Turkey duty is mine, and I believe what I have this year is a Red Bourbon from a CSA group.

Now that I'm apparently going to end up with a horse in the next year or two, the pressure for moving onto acreage grows stronger. They'll be heritage turkeys there, for sure, among the many edible residents I plan to have. Only the horses, dogs and cats will be completely off the table, so to speak.