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!

11 responses to “Happy Thanksgiving

  1. Wow, great post! What a beautiful editorial about the turkey. I, too, raise our own (mainly to get around the cost like you) and here it is Thanksgiving Day and my turkeys are out there roaming, grazing all across my farm. One will end up on our table on the Solstice and two others will be gifts for others’ Christmas meals. I will miss seeing them as they travel spot to spot looking for bits of natural food.

    The part about the firend who cries at slaughter time is so touching.

  2. This is such a beautifully written post! I totally agree, even if I’m a vegetarian. In the western society we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that we are also part of the natural cycle of life and death, and so we don’t want to encounter death in any form, but always comprehend it as violence.

  3. Hi Novella,

    I finished reading your book today.
    You are officially heroic in my world.

    I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna be an urban farmer.

    I’ll keep you posted…excuse the pun.

  4. Pingback: Dropstone Farms » Short Thanksgiving/harvest roundup

  5. Well the NY Times missed out on a great bit of writing! Maybe they couldn’t handle the turkey sex bit! Thanks for sharing!

  6. You have been such an inspiration to me. My “baby steps” may possibly have me raising turkeys in the not-so-distant future, but for now I paid (handsomly) for a Bourbon Red for my Thanksgiving table. Since they don’t grow to the size of the genetically modified birds, I bought two turkeys – the heritage bird, and one “regular” turkey. Prepared them the same (brined, stuffed, roasted – nothing fancy, just herbs) and LOVED the “meatier” taste of the Bourbon Red.

    Thanks, Novella, for inspiring me.

  7. enjoyed your post and couldn’t agree with you more. every year our turkey is purchased from friends who have a small farm near our home. my 10 year old son and I like to go out and visit “Tom”, as we call him, once or twice before he’s slaughtered. many of my friends think it’s mean to show my child a creature that will eventually end up on our table, but my son is always thankful for the delicious meat we eat (we purchase pork and chicken from this farm, as well) AND he actually knows where it comes from and that an animal gave his life so we could enjoy a delicious and nutritious meal.

  8. I just closed “Farm City”…glad that is the book that arrived at the top of my stack this week. My time in the kitchen Thursday was a little more thoughtful this year…made me look sideways at the rabbit that lives in our living room, too!!!

  9. Thanks for the inspiring post. I tried to order a heritage turkey from a local farm this year, but was too late. I won’t be next year. While it’s important to me to eat humanely raised meat, I’m not sure I’m ready yet to raise a turkey in downtown Atlanta (although I do have 4 chickens).

  10. Hi there,

    I am in the PIG section of your book right now, and I savor it as my before bed reading book. Those are the books that I don’t want to finish quick. I want to enjoy for a few months, a bit at a time, each night. I really appreciate what you are doing, and how you share your experiences with us. You have made me want to at least have chickens one day, maybe more. You give me courage by sharing your stories. Thanks!

    Warmly,

    Molly Chester

  11. I read your book a little while ago, and I thought you’d appreciate these glamorous turkey photos I found on this site: http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/2009/11/25/happy-thanksgiving-homage-to-the-turkey/

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