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A Tale of Two Turkeys

Healthy, free range Heritage Turkeys

In September of 1620, the passengers of the Mayflower set sail from England to Massachusetts.  The first year was difficult; they spent most of the winter on the ship and emerged around March when the weather improved.  Luckily for the Pilgrims, a Native American Indian, named Squanto, taught them to cultivate corn, fish, tap maple trees for sap, and to avoid poisonous plants.  The Native American Indians’ generosity was the reason for the Pilgrims’ successful first harvest in the autumn of 1621.  As a celebratory feast, the governor invited the Wampanoag tribe for a three day festival, which has been whittled down to our present-day, single meal to give thanks.

Though there are no accounts of the exact menu, there was plenty of food to feed the 53 Pilgrims and 90 Indians in attendance.  Diaries and accounts highlight plenty of wild fowl and at least 5 deer prepared with traditional Native American herbs and spices (mint, sage, thyme, salt, pepper).  Of course, they were celebrating the harvest so the feast had an abundance of fruits and vegetables, including: corn (in the form of cornbread or corn pudding), onions and pumpkins.  Currants, nuts, grapes, fish, lobster, eel and molasses were probably also available.  There were no ovens and the sugar supply was diminished (so contrary to popular belief, there were no pumpkin desserts). 

Though many Mayflower passengers died, my ancestor, Edward Doty, lived for the first 30 years at Plymouth and participated in the first thanksgiving meal.  Today, it’s likely that the only similar thing dish between his table and mine is the turkey – though I don’t hunt for mine.  Instead of feasting to celebrate the fruits of my labor, I eat to celebrate his and success of the colony.  He knew where his turkey came from, but these days, most Americans can’t say the same.

A sickly looking turkey, typical from a factory farm

I encourage everyone to eat an environmentally conscientious meal this Thanksgiving, and the difference in your choice is hardship and suffering – for the turkey.  Turkeys from factory farms are often kept in a windowless room with bright lights on 24 hours/day, encouraging them to eat non-stop and get very little sleep.  Within the first few days of life, they have their beaks hacked off so they have trouble grabbing food (among a slew of other problems).  As a result of living in filthy, tight quarters, they’re prone to sickness, so farmers pump them full of antibiotics.

At my parents’ house, my mom and I cook for about 30 people and with that much food, it’s hard to buy locally.  The farmers markets around her house don’t offer poultry so our turkey will be from Whole Foods.  And it’s going to be a little more expensive than a Butterball but the main reason that it’s worth it to me is quality.  My turkey will have had a life of running around, eating grass, and seeing the light of day. It’s not only better for the turkey but better for the environment and for human nutrition.  Turkeys that have more freedom have been shown to be higher in antioxidants, other vitamins, minerals, and Omega-3 fatty acids.

So, of the 242 million turkeys raised in the US every year, unsustainable practices by companies contribute greatly to what’s wrong with our food system.  There are going to be over 100 million households celebrating Thanksgiving this year, and that’s enough people to make a big impact on poulty purchasing – do your part simply by buying a turkey that was raised sustainably.  This is a great guide to help you decide which type of turkey would best suit your needs and your budget.

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