A Tale of Turkey
Serves 12 to 14
1 fresh, cleaned heritage turkey
3 cups kosher or sea salt
Herbs de Provence
1 stick butter
½ cup dry white wine
Stuffing recipe of choice
Directions: 24 hours before cooking, mix salt and herbs de Provence together and coat the turkey inside and out. Place in the refrigerator for 24 hours to cure. Rinse the turkey inside and out to remove salt and herbs, stuff and truss. Melt the stick of butter, add wine and baste the bird with the butter/wine mixture. Cover the turkey with parchment paper or cheese cloth.
Place the bird in a preheated 450̊ F oven and reduce heat immediately to 300̊ F. Allow 20-25 minutes per pound cooking time. Baste regularly throughout cooking, and remove parchment/cheesecloth ½ hour before completion to allow for browning.
Last year our family raised heritage Bourbon red turkeys with a very special Thanksgiving in mind. We fenced in an acre of pasture and fattened up the birds for nine months on certified organic feed, grass, wildflowers and the occasional grasshopper. I have never before slaughtered an animal in my life, and as an animal lover, I was a quivering mass of indecision at the prospect of the task at hand. But, for some reason, the lure of natural and sustainable meat gave me the strength to undertake the project. After all, I surmised, although I often fantasize about giving it up completely, I am a meat eater. I rationalized that if I am to eat meat, I should be willing to do the bloody deed.
With the above in mind, I kept my emotional distance from the birds while at the same time providing them with the best life a turkey could hope for. Early in the spring, a dozen eggs arrived from the hatchery. We fired up the incubator and faithfully tended the eggs for 28 days. Out of the dozen eggs, five turkeys hatched. For the first several weeks the poults stayed in the house in a brooder as they feathered out. When the weather warmed up, we turned them out to pasture.
Our pasture borders a country road, and as the turkeys grew, the toms became territorial and would strut up and down along the fence line challenging every car that dared enter their turf. The turkeys also provided amusement for neighborhood kids who enjoyed getting the turkeys to display by taunting and gobbling at them. All the while, the beautiful birds grew at a shocking rate until the week before Thanksgiving when we found ourselves with four toms of almost 20 pounds each and a petit little hen.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, dispatch day arrived. Paul, our organic feed supplier agreed to come to our farm and instruct us on the finer art of culling. Three fine tom turkeys met their maker that morning with a swift stroke of a sharp knife to the jugular vein. The idea of the slaughter it turns out was far worse than the act itself. The turkeys had no idea of what was coming, and by the time they did, they were already gone.
In terms of morality, our situation was about as good as a meat meal can be. The birds had known a good life and received a humane execution. The reality of our Thanksgiving feast was not pretty. There was a shocking amount of blood. The nervous reaction to having their throats cut caused the birds to twitch around for a while after the deed was done. A bucket full of entrails required disposal. For some reason the heads and feet were the most difficult pieces of bird to deal with face to face. I didn’t sleep well that night. The reality of my complicity in the operation sat heavily upon my conscience. Just the day before, three magnificent creatures had been strutting around proudly puffing out their tails and chests and posing for passersby.
Last Thanksgiving, we had the most delicious turkey we had ever tasted, but our family was acutely aware of everything our meal had cost. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the slaughter of an animal was considered to be a sacred act, and only priests were allowed to perform the task. Biblical references to animal "sacrifice" are actually rituals conducted to sanctify the slaughter of animals for food. In our modern era of fast food, we have lost connection with the taking of life the eating of meat necessitates. I wonder if the staggering consumption of hamburgers and chicken nuggets would be so prevalent if happy eaters were in touch with the reality of their meat. Our experience with turkeys has certainly drastically reduced our family’s consumption of meat. Never again will we take for granted the creatures on our plates.
From last year’s brood, we kept one tom and the small hen to breed this year. Our breeding efforts were successful beyond our wildest dreams, and we have had to sell poults on Craigslist just to keep from being overrun with the fecund birds. As the fall season encroaches upon us again, my pulse begins to once again quicken as I emotionally prepare for the upcoming Thanksgiving. I will be anxious and perhaps even queasy when we sacrifice one of this year’s brood for our feast, but I will most definitely be very thankful for the splendid creature that gave its life for my sustenance.