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Before You Gobble Your Gobbler: The Real Deal on Turkeys

Thursday is fast-approaching.  Welcome to Thanksgiving 2008.  Or, as it’s also known, Turkey Day.  Is it just me, or is that an odd nickname?  It makes it sound like of fun, poultry-based activities intended to honor the noble turkey, even though it’s more like “The Day All Turkeys Must Die.”

Imagine if the same was true of other holidays so named, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Yeesh.  Okay, extreme, but do you get the aforementioned weirdness now?

If you’ve not seen the video of Sarah Palin pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving while others are being slaughtered on camera right behind her, perhaps you should take a gander.  While it’s rife with irony (and innuendo from the interviewer at times—”programs on the chopping block”?), it does bring up an issue that I want resolved. And no slight on Governor Palin, here.  This is far bigger than either this interview or the governor herself.

Can someone, ANYONE, out there please explain the whole “pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving” thing?  I know how it started—that’s not my question.  I really don’t get the rationale.  Frankly, making a PR opportunity out of pardoning a specific turkey while encouraging the deaths of countless others seems to smack of a sick sort of humor.  It’s only because so many birds will wind up on dinner tables for the holiday that marking one to have the chance to die a natural death is remotely noteworthy.  This is particularly true when you consider that the president/governor/other public figures in question fully intend to have a turkey at their family dinners, just not that particular one.

“Heh heh heh.  Yous guys is all invited over for dinner, if you know what I mean.  But hey, I gots a heart, so…you there, with the feathers and the red bobble on your noggin, you gets to go free.”

Seriously, wha?

Watch the drama of the pardon unfold on an episode of the West Wing, shown here.

Since so many folks in this country eat turkey for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or both, it’s a good time to talk about trafficking in turkeys.  Here are a few stats.

  • An estimated 250-300 million turkeys are slaughtered every year (according to the national Turkey Federation), with about 45-50 million of those dedicated to Thanksgiving dinners.
  • The most commonly consumed variety of turkey is the broad-breasted white, turkeys bred to have so much breast meat (the preferred cut) that they cannot run, and their reproduction is dependent artificial insemination.  This variety of turkey is also marked by a short tail, which allows them to be kept in closer quarters than varieties with fuller tails.
  • Because they are kept in close confines, turkeys may peck at or cannibalize each other.  While this behavior is typically not a problem when turkeys are provided with adequate space and the proper amount of heat and light, the standard remedy in the industry is debeaking, in which a portion of the upper beak and a little of the lower beak are removed by a hot blade.
  • Because of a combination of the genetic profile of the bird and its living conditions, infections can be rampant.  Turkeys are routinely given antibiotics to help prevent infections, but routine use of antibiotics may be contributing to the development of superbugs, antibiotic-resistant strains that defy our best efforts at treatment.

All of which, of course, highlights the value of doing up a decadent vegetarian Thanksgiving or looking for a more compassionately and sustainably raised turkey.  Although going the Tofurkey route may seem unappealing to many people, I’m going to be real here—Tofurkey isn’t on my top 5 list, either.  To be fair, I’ve never had it.  As a general rule, I don’t go for meat stand-ins, not least because they tend to be highly processed and full of random thickeners, flavors, and colors.  Instead, imagine vibrantly orange squash stuffed with wild rice, steaming bowls of golden lentil soup, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pie for everyone.  Or, for the non-traditionalists, what about vegetarian tamales with smoky black beans, wilted greens with roasted red peppers, and sweet potato puree spiced with orange, chile, and cinnamon?  Creamy mushroom soup with crusty homemade bread, carmelized Brussels sprouts, and a baked sweet potato and apple dish?  If you are interested in branching out with meat no longer at the centerpiece of your table, chances are that you’ll save money even as you enjoy a beautiful and delicious fall dinner.

If you have your heart set on a turkey for this holiday or ones coming up, get the inside scoop on what labels (free range, natural, kosher, antibiotic-free, etc.) mean and which ones matter over at US News and World Report. And for those looking for a turkey raised outside the factory farm environment, check out Local Harvest to find small producers near you.

So tell me, those of you who have Thanksgiving gatherings planned: what’s on your menu for the big day?  Any favorite dishes?

7 comments

7 Comments so far

  1. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? November 25th, 2008 2:46 pm

    I’ll tell you what grosses me out the most about the way turkeys are produced is the artificial insemination. We’ve rendered this species incapable of life’s most basic function of reproduction. It’s so, so sick. Last year I made a quinoa-mushroom loaf as the main dish. But when I’m at other people’s homes I will eat a small piece of turkey to not cause a scene. No one appreciates talk of artificial insemination at the dinner table!

  2. Andrea November 25th, 2008 9:14 pm

    I’m not sure that it’s any less cruel, but we’ve had many Thanksgiving dinners with a wild turkey on the table that was hunted and killed by my father. He did the proper cleaning and roasting, and it was always a great bird. There is a distinctly different taste to wild turkey; I find it to be a lot more flavorful. Not that I recommend everyone go out and kill a wild turkey for their Thanksgiving dinner, but it is an alternative option, and the quality of the meat (in terms of exposure to chemicals, antiobiotics, etc.) is sure to be much better than that of a store bought turkey.

  3. Kim November 25th, 2008 11:02 pm

    Is it wrong that listening to Mrs. Palin speak makes me more sick than reading all this bad stuff about turkeys? Yikes.

    That aside…I won’t be eating turkey this holiday either. I’m making beet soup, sauteed green beans and Parmesan, vegetarian stuffing, and a pecan pie to bring to a Tucson Thanksgiving Extravaganza…there will be a turkey there of which I will not partake. There is so much other good food!

  4. Laurel November 26th, 2008 8:31 am

    Actually, a wild turkey is undoubtedly less cruel. They die either way, but the quality of their lives is vastly different. Even when a wild turkey has to contend with predators, food shortages, and cold, I wouldn’t call acts of nature “cruel.”

    Wild turkeys are intelligent and wily birds–my uncle has taken me birdwatching here in WI, and whenever we see a flock of wild turkeys, he makes sure to tell me all about how many good hunters with an appetite for turkey wind up hunting theirs in the grocery store.

    While hunting needs to be done in a sustainable and compassionate way to protect natural resources and not cause unnecessary suffering, it can be a decent option for some hunters who want a bird at Thanksgiving.

  5. Laurel November 26th, 2008 8:33 am

    Kim–

    Pecan pie??? Let me know how it turns out. I swear, I am ready to run a pecan pie-off here to try to find one that’s not overly sweet. I am trying my second one today for the big family events tomorrow. I’ll let you know how mine turns out if you tell me about yours, deal?

  6. Andrea November 26th, 2008 8:47 pm

    For our corp. Thanksgiving luncheon today, the chef made a pumpkin pie with roasted pecans on top and about a quarter inch into the pumpkin mixture. It was a great combination and not too sweet. Might be something to try if you aren’t happy with regular with pecan pie…

  7. Kim November 29th, 2008 5:36 pm

    L-
    My family has a pecan pie recipe that my mom makes as a tradition every year…it is by far way way way too sweet for me and not really the ingredients I would prefer. While we did use pecans that we got at a roadside stand on the way to Bisbee, the recipe calls for corn syrup…and lots of sugar. I had one sliver and thought I was going to go into diabetic shock. O.k. maybe that’s exaggerating, but let’s just say if you figure out a recipe that is to your liking…I would also be interested in trying it. It would be a good experiment to bring both the pies to dinner next Thanksgiving and see which one goes over better.

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