November 19, 2010

Turkey Talk: Go Organic This Thanksgiving

As a graduate student in the mid-1990s, I worked for a generous businessman who handed out fresh, free-range, organic turkeys to his employees for Thanksgiving. It caught me by surprise
the first time he proudly handed me a large box with a raw turkey inside. That hadn’t happened before.

I didn’t plan to cook a meal at home that year, I wasn’t sure if the bird would fit into my refrigerator, and I wondered why he went to the trouble of ordering this particular type of turkey for all of us. How’s that for gratitude? But after my initial adjustment to the idea of it, and once I’d figured out when and how to cook it, I began to understand the importance of his gesture.

My employer had just introduced me to something far superior to what I’d usually bought on sale with a coupon at the grocery store. Better tasting, moist, no fuss about thawing since it’s fresh, nicely shaped, more compact - this turkey actually appeared to have more vitality than all the previously frozen, conventionally grown ones I’d seen before. Since then, I’ve insisted on the same. Who could go back?

In addition, I became aware of something I’d not paid much attention to up to that point: the unsettling treatment of poultry in conventional farming practices. The majority of turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving have been raised in crowded indoor conditions under heat lamps and fed genetically-modified (GMO) corn, soybeans, and fillers. This feed is laced with pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics (to try to reduce the number of birds getting sick from an uncomfortable life in extremely crowded conditions).

Some of the turkeys are fattened to the point they can’t walk. “Broad Breasted Whites” are huge breasted turkeys bred to satisfy the American love of white meat, but many of them die on the floor of their crowded coop, unable to survive the inhumane treatment.

After an unthinkable slaughter, dry industrial turkeys are often injected with a saline solution in an attempt to get them to be more moist and taste better. But they truly don’t taste that well, which is why there are so many recipes for helping a turkey taste better: brining, basting, barbecuing, deep-frying, and all sorts of marinades, seasonings, and gravies. Put it in a paper bag, put it in a plastic bag, stuff it with onions and apples, start it in a hot oven then turn down the oven while basting every half hour. Who wants to do all that in the midst of setting the table, keeping the house cleaned up, managing side dishes, and welcoming friends and family with a smiling face?

With a fresh, organic, free-range, humanely-raised turkey, none of that is necessary. You can add a few seasonings if you want, but even with just a little salt you’re good to go. Put it in the oven and it’s going to taste great. I butter the skin and add garlic, sometimes putting a rosemary sprig and onion in the cavity, or even good old stuffing, which is less of a concern because organic turkeys don’t have the same risk of salmonella poisoning as conventionally grown birds.

An added bonus is you’ll know your bird had a good life roaming around in fresh air, eating bugs and grass and things turkeys eat in nature. The drawback? A higher price tag. If more people supported organic farming methods, the prices would come down. In the meantime, I’d prefer to pay a bit more and support an organic farmer who has our health and the wellbeing of the earth in mind.

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