Monthly Archives: November 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Hello! I tried to submit this to the NYTimes Op-Ed pages, but they had too many damn Thanksgiving opinions, so here it is, on my humble blog…. 

Four years ago, I raised my first Thanksgiving turkey on my urban farm in Oakland, CA. My reasoning was the following: I wanted to eat organic, free-range turkey but didn’t have a lot of money, so I decided to do it myself. With this in mind, I did what any urban farmer does: I logged onto the internet and bought a bargain-priced assortment of day-old poultry. A few weeks later I received a peeping box through the US Post Office, my assortment was called the Homesteader’s Delight. The baby turkeys—poults–looked like chicks: fuzzy, adorable, with a little pucker of skin on their heads. As the poults grew, that pucker turned into a dangling snood, and I grew fond of this most American of poultry. They had a curiosity, an openness toward other creatures, including my dumbfounded neighbors. One of the denizens of my street, a strict vegan, even named the turkeys in a bid to turn them into pets, not dinner.

The turkeys lived on my farm for six months. They had a good life and were fed well. They roamed freely. And on one cold November day, one of my turkeys went from live animal to the celebratory centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table. My initial goal, to save money, was a colossal failure: I ended up spending about $100 each on feed for the birds, making it not so cost-effective. Instead of saving money, I learned a few lessons about what it means to eat meat. One surprise was raising a turkey made me feel deeply connected to our human ancestors. A rather post-modern experience—raising a turkey in the city—tied me to the first people who domesticated the animals that appear in farms today. I became part of a long line of historical animal husbandry. Another lesson learned: meat does involve killing. This is so obvious, but it’s a reality that most meat eaters avoid recognizing. Vegetarians and vegans argue that meat is murder. It’s not exactly murder, though, as my turkey wasn’t killed with hatred or malice, but with respect and thanks. A final lesson was that the most important part of animal husbandry isn’t the day of that animal’s death, something we Americans fixate on. No, it is the day-in, day-out of the turkey’s half-year lifetime that should be focused upon. Did that turkey get the chance to run about, to chirp and call, to feel safe, have access to plenty of food, and most of all to be a turkey? The fact that I could answer in the affirmative to these questions, made me feel like I did right by that turkey. And I did right by myself and family and friends, as that turkey was the most flavorful, tender, juicy bird I had ever eaten. I had a deep connection to the turkey that was served for dinner; I had the story of the turkey’s life to share at the table.

This November at my friend’s urban farm in Austin, Texas, I had the honor of teaching a handful of curious students how to raise their own turkeys in the city—something I have done every year since that first time four years ago. I like to point out that anyone who has room for a few chickens usually has enough space to raise a turkey or two. After teaching basics about coops and predator protection, feed and water, I demonstrated how to humanely kill, then pluck and eviscerate a beautiful Rio Grande turkey. As the class helped pluck away the bird’s feathers—the key moment when the bird becomes recognizable as meat–the group grew quiet and reverential. I taught the class because I want people to understand what it means to eat meat. It means a life is lived and a life is taken. Vegetarians and vegans acknowledge this fact more readily than carnivores. Instead of turning away from this reality, I would like people this Thanksgiving to look even closer, to examine where their turkey comes from, how it lived, and how it died. A small-scale turkey farmer friend of mine says she cries every November when it comes time to harvest their birds. Meat is precious. At the end of my class, my students assured me they would never think of turkey in the same way again. They now had a more complete vision of their meal, and they were eager to share that story.

 P.S. I will be braising my turkey Edith (pictured, preparing for turkey sex, on bottom), who was slaughtered as part of last year’s turkey class. She wasn’t able to hatch out any chicks, and grew to be an older bird, and will make a fine turkey soup. Thank you Edith!

Back Home

Those words: back home, make me so happy.

My mom called to tell me she had counted, and I had been to 10 different venues in almost as many days during my east coast tour. I was in denial about those numbers, but looking back on it, yup, she was right. Funny thing was, it never felt like work. Mostly because of the awesome people I met along the way.

First thing I did after I landed in New York City was to go to the New York Restoration Project offices, where an awesome urban farmer and tree steward had invited me to visit. After I had a gander at the offices–gorgeous and seems like a fun place to be–we went to the Spotted Pig for dinner. There we met up with the Pig’s forager and ate some yummy British pub food. The next morning I got a tour of some Bronx gardens. I can’t believe how much unused space is there! As we wandered, we met community gardeners and gawked at what people had planted. One proud urban farmer showed us his prized collard green patch. I loved the little houses people build in the gardens.

After the tour, I went to Dewitt-Clinton high school in the Bronx. This great organization, called Behind the Book, provides kids at this and other “inner city” high schools books and then invites authors to come talk to the kids. I was flattered to be included in this program. I loved meeting the kids, who were so excited, and appeared to have actually read my book!

A few hours later, I found myself at the Horticulture Society of New York, giving a reading and presentation. The HSNY is so f-ing cool. They do job training for guys post-prison, they have an amazing plant gallery and of course, a wonderful library. Many sweet people came to hear me talk, and I felt very loved–especially by Owen from Just Food.

The next day, I took care of some business during the day, then did a reading at Vox Pop in Flatbush. Such an adorable audience! My favorite folks were a freegan couple who ended up bartering with me for a copy of my book in exchange for a hand-made knife. I definitely got the better end of the deal: the knife is freaking amazing. And sharp.

I then headed to New England for the next four days, doing readings in Providence, Boston, Portland, and Portsmouth. What can I say? I love Providence! There I met the most amazing group of people who run the Southside Community Land Trust and City Farm, right in downtown Providence.

This photo is Rich Pederson, the main farmer at City Farm, standing next to his raspberry forest. He is a total rockstar, picked me up at the train station with raspberries to munch on. I got really inspired by his community building ideas: like block parties! rain water barrel building! vegetable start propagation and sales! We had a really warm, funny conversation in association with Providence Slow Food and the Unitarian church. I also got to meet and stay with Poor Girl Gourmet blogger, Amy McCoy. She is sooo fun.

Boston was beautiful and freezing cold. Boston Slow Food really turned out people for my talk/reading, which was paired with a class on how to keep urban chickens. I also got the chance to see my dear old friend Joe Waldwell, painter extraordinaire. He played me a Quiet Riot song to get me geared up for my reading. Let’s just say, I was amped up! I have to go back to Boston because I missed seeing the famous Allandale Farm and the Food Project. Lucky for me, I think I’ll be hitting Boston again for the paperback book tour in June.

That night, I took a bus to Portland Maine and found myself in a car that smelled like goat. Thank god. I love goat cars, there aren’t enough of them in this world. The driver, Margaret Hathway, is the author of The Year of the Goat, and she was wonderful. She and her husband Karl live outside of Portland, where they farm and make cheese, raise two adorable human children, and prepare delicious foods like beef stew and Pear custard tarts. Yum!

In the morning, we went to Portland, had breakfast at Aurora Provisions (sage latkes AND beet sausage hash, good lord!). I always say this: every city I go to has an urban farm, you just have to ask. Portland, Maine was no exception.There’s a great org, Cultivating Community, who teaches local youth about farming, they have a little orchard, goats, and hella vegetables. I love their spirit. Stuffed and happy, I read at the fabulous Rabelais Books, the most amazing cookbook, food, farming, and antiquarian bookstore ever. It was the inspiration for the equally lovely Omnivore Books in San Francisco.

Are you exhausted yet? Well, next I went to Portsmouth, NH for their 50-mile Thanksgiving Dinner where I did a little reading and talk about my farm. There was a “Nor’Easter” storm or something like that. Wonderful, slightly terrifying rain. I missed seeing the cool historic gardens there in Portsmouth, though. Next time?

Back in NYC by 3am on Sunday. Just in time to rush to Brooklyn and teach my rabbit slaughter class. Hmmm. How I managed to make sense and gently guide my students to self-empowerment, I am not sure. But, the class was great, the students were eager, and the rabbits were healthy. Here’s one reporter’s take on the day. If I had seen the “bad” students, I would’ve clocked them. But like I said: tired.

I spent the last few days in New York in an eating-fueled torpor: going to a mind-blowingly good dinner put on by a gaggle of chefs from the West Coast (Chez Panisse/OPEN) and the East Coast (Diner and Marlowe & Daughter/Sons) and Meatpaper Magazine. I cannot forget how delicious the Blue Point oysters of Long Island are. The cooks made dishes from rabbit, and I must say, it was outstanding. Highlights included the rabbit terrine, the Boudin Blanc, and the frisee salad. A dinner host on another night made the most delectable Long Island duck breasts, with macaroons for dessert. Stunning.

Now I’m back at home, processing (obviously) everything I did in New York and New England. The goats are doing great: Bebe’s back in heat today, Hedwig’s coat is still luscious, Ginger is as dainty as ever. The chickens are all molting. The rabbits are getting big, and my new buck, Mr. Spider is becoming social and an adventurous eater. The garden is sprouting new seeds–beet, carrot, favas–and producing fruit–white genoa figs, Orange Cox apples, rhubarb, limes. The bees are enjoying the unseasonably warm days. And then there was Bill, who takes care of everything while I’m gone.

What’s next? Working on a new book, curing olives, making cheese, planning some trips. But mostly enjoying the wonders of home.

Talking turkey in Austin

No one brought a camera for the turkey slaughter class in Austin, including me. It was more personal that way.

Heck, it was personal on so many levels. First off, one of my best friends in the world hosted the class at her little urban farm in East Austin. Leilani is from the Bay Area and I have been missing her for a few years now as she’s settled into life in Austin. Part of settling there involved raising chickens and turkeys. She and her beau, Luke, starting keeping a few Rio Grande turkeys, the oldest relative to the original turkey of North America.

Instead of just buying turkeys every year, they reasoned, they would retain a breeding pair and let the tom and hen go for it. This spring, the turkeys mated secretly, and the hen hatched out 8 adorable little poults. Tom and mom protected the poults, showed them what to eat, draped their wings over the babies at night. When I first saw the poults, they were almost full grown, five months old. And frankly, they were ready to eat.

I had come to Austin for the Texas Book Festival to be on a panel with a famous vegetarian, Jonathan Safran Foer; a professor; and a bad boy chef named Jason Sheehan (for that round-up, see here). Like any book related trip, I wanted to do some hands-on work. It was a delicate issue–err, Leilani, can I kill one of your turkeys? and teach other people how to raise turkeys…at your house? Any other friend would have been annoyed. Leilani, on the other hand, was delighted. She loves hosting parties and doing workshops.

And so, the four people who could make it to a Halloween turkey slaughter class arrived that Saturday, dressed for the occasion, ready to learn. I was charmed by the easy-going nature of Texans, their good humor, their independence. That was why they were there. After an hour discussing the ins and outs of turkey husbandry, we went up to the coop to collect our girl for slaughter. Leilani grabbed her, I did some wrangling–these were almost wild turkeys!–and we brought her down to the burning sage area. The turkey seemed mildly curious, we said our thanks and goodbyes and got out the loppers (my new dispatching implement). Her death was swift, with good intentions from all of us. Then we dipped her in hot water, gathered around the table, and plucked all her feathers away.

The difficult part–the real reason for anyone to take a class like mine, was the evisceration. I showed people my almost fail-safe method to avoid contaminating the meat. This is the thing that trips up most people, and by showing them this, I feel like I am really imparting some important, empowering knowlege. Someone fished out the lungs. Someone else examined the gizzard, cut it open, and saw what the turkey had been eating. And then our turkey was all cleaned up. And she was beautiful, with perfect conformation, wonderful black feet, meaty breast area (but not abnormal like those Standard Whites). She had been born on this farm, lived a great life, and now was ready for eating.

Almost. First we put the bird in some salted water for a few hours, just to get any residual blood out. Then we rinsed and dried the turkey off, wrapped it in a tea towel and stowed it in the fridge to rest.

While the turkey rested, we were invited to a great dinner party at Boggy Creek Farm, an urban farm nearby. The farmers–Carol Ann and Larry–have been farming in Austin since 1991, and have a famous farm stand that Austinites flock to every week. I was so amazed how sweet and friendly Carol Ann and Larry were, they showered me with gifts like Holly Honey and smoked tomatoes. The dinner, cooked by Elizabeth from Farmhouse Delivery, was off the hook–local blue cheese and apples, arugula salad, and seafood stew made with local shrimp and fish, and finally persimmon pudding. Holy crap, Texans eat good!

I was only in Texas for a few days, so I left Leilani and Luke instructions for cooking the turkey and hoped for the best. Chefs had told me heritage birds need high heat, over a shorter period of time, and the turkey should be rotated every fifteen minutes or so. They also said to remove the legs and roast or braise them for a little longer. Leilani seemed a bit skeptical–their last turkey had just been okay. Today Leilani called me to give me the report. After four days of resting in the fridge, she rubbed it with olive oil, salt and pepper and put it in the oven.

“I didn’t turn it every 15 minutes,” she admitted. Despite that, the turkey came out great–roasted at 400 degrees for a little less than two hours. The breast meat was tender and juicy, the legs were perfectly delicious. She sounded like they are going to harvest the rest of the turkeys, keeping the tom and hen and following the cycle again next year. After I hung up the phone with Leilani, I felt so proud of her–of us–for raising, preparing and cooking our own Thanksgiving turkey, with love.