The great holiday of Thanksgiving is just around the corner. If you are planning to have friends and family over to celebrate, I bet turkey is on the menu! If it's not, that's okay too. There are so many great main dish options that might not include the traditional bird. For now, let's talk about your turkey options when it comes to keeping nutrition and the environment in mind as you choose the bird that will be sitting pretty on your Thanksgiving table this year.
What's wrong with the turkeys I've been buying all these years?
Maybe you've been buying your turkey from a local farm or a seller you can trust to raise their bird free of antibiotics or growth enhancers. Or maybe you are familiar with heritage turkeys. The problem is that 99% of the turkeys raised for us to eat are raised on factory farms, according to Sustainable Table. The typical variety is called "Broadbasted White" and they are kept in very sad conditions of confinement. Their crowded living space is dirty and their diet consist of grains (not a natural food choice for a turkey!) And antibiotics. The true diet of a turkey should include grass, grubs, and bugs. Does not sound appetizing to me, but that is what these guys like. Because these gobblers are not eating the diet that their body needs to develop properly, the end product – the meat we eat, is dry and tasteless. To solve this problem, the industry injects our birds with saline solutions and vegetable oils to make us think our table top turkey tastes like …. turkey. What we have gotten away from is the understanding that if we let a turkey live and eat like a turkey should, they might just taste like a turkey – juicy and flavorful!
Another not-so-glamorous fact about the conventional "broadbasted white" turkey is that they are bred and fed to be so large, that they are physically unable to reproduce on their own. If left un-inseminated by us, this bird would have been extinct in one generation. In addition, the lack of their genetic diversity makes the turkey unacceptable to illness that could wipe out an entire flock. The advantage of the heritage turkey, which we will talk about in a minute here, is that with a genetically diverse flock of birds, that threat drops significantly.
So, what are your options?
You do not need to be stuck with a flavorless bird on Thanksgiving. With an increased awareness about supporting a local and sustainable food supply, the demand for healthier options is on the rise. Take some time over the next couple of weeks to venture outside the realm of the freezer section of your local grocer to discover other Tom Turkey alternatives.
Check out localharvest.org to find a farm near you that raises either organic and free range birds or heritage varieties. Visit your local farmers market and take advantage of winter farmers markets in your area that may carry turkeys. If you choose a certified organic bird, it could be the "broadbasted white" variety mentioned above, but it has to be raised without antibiotics and growth enhancers. It must also eat organic feed and have access to the outdoors. Much different than a factory farm situation!
Heritage turkeys are genetically diverse birds and are actually the type of bird that our ancestors ate back in the day. Talk about having a traditional Thanksgiving experience! Due to nature of the heritage turkey, they can only survive being raised in an outdoor setting on a pasture. Always be sure to talk to your farmer or the seller and ask plenty of questions. The benefit of buying locally is knowing exactly where your food is coming from and in what condition your food was raised. Ask questions! How much time do your birds spend outdoors? Do your hens get antibiotics? What are they fed? Be sure you are comfortable with the answers you get before you fork over cash for that bird. I did not take the photo of these beautiful birds. Thanks to Google Images, above is a look at what one type of heritage turkey looks like!
Any drawbacks to finding a sustainable bird for your Thanksgiving feast? You may pay a bit more for your turkey if you choose an organic or heritage bird. But c'mon, it's Thanksgiving. Why skimp on the main course of your Thanksgiving meal menu? The other thing to keep in mind is that some farms only raise a certain number of birds based on orders place earlier in the year. You may have to do a little hunting around if you do not already have a turkey farmer / seller nailed down. I think it's worth the work!