Photo credit: ExperienceLA via Flickr/Creative Commons
Heritage turkeys are a pretty good option if you aren't in to Tofurky or other non-gobbling traditional main dish choices for Thanksgiving, but how much do you know about how these turkeys get from farm to table? In a fascinating piece in The Atlantic, food writer Lisa M. Hamilton takes a closer look at a small-time operation in Sonoma, California that's trying to bring heritage breeds back in to the food culture of this often turkey-centric holiday.
You know how it gets here -- after a few hours in the oven -- but what about the time before that? Photo credit: tuchodi via Flickr/Creative Commons
Tracing turkeys back: Before the farm
To trace these particular birds, the story goes back to 2004, when Slow Food USA launched a campaign they called Renewing America's Food Traditions. They wanted to save endangered food species with sort of a counter-intuitive measure: Convincing farmers to grow them, and consumers to eat them. The problem with heritage turkeys? Nobody was growing them, and not many knew how or cared to learn. Small poultry farms, which numbered near 6,000 in the early part of the 1900's, were nearly gone, and with them, the knowledge and interest in growing animals like heritage turkeys.
So Slow Food found a group of 4H kids to help with the process. The kids learn organic agriculture, leadership, and economic skills, and, in return, the community gets to experience what was once an almost lost bit of food culture.
Learning to grow the turkeys was easy enough, at least compared to the tricky bit between farm and table: "Harvesting" the turkeys. Because of a variety of factors, including food safety laws and lack of infrastructure for small farms, there was no way to process them. Rather than bow to what the USDA might otherwise expect -- that they be carted up and shipped off to an industrial-scale processing plant -- Slow Food found local chefs and other members of the community to help the kids learn.
And it seems to be working. "I'm hoping that raising the kids this way will keep them doing what our family has been doing for six generations now," said Barbara Prebelich, a grandmother of two 4H participants. Her husband, Tony, added, "I call what we're doing here B.S. That is, 'Before Safeway.'"
The whole process can be a gruesome reality check -- the plucking machine, for example, does its job with mechanized efficiency that's not really reminiscent of any romantic visions about the idyllic lives of free-ranging gobblers -- especially for anyone who still thinks that food comes from places like Safeway, but that's a really important part for anyone taking part in the process. As we've noted, anyone who consumes any kind of meat, no matter how happy or whether or not it was raised on organic, vegetarian feed, should be familiar with all the particulars; knowing all that helps us as consumers properly honor the animal and value the experience. Who knows, maybe it'll help convince us as a society to eat less meat.
So if you're planning to tuck in to a turkey on Thanksgiving, we hope you'll take the time to take a look back and give thanks for what it took to get your bird from farm to table. Learn more about the California Slow Food group and their efforts, and have a great, green Thanksgiving.