How local is your turkey?

The website looked amazing. Not amazing in a classic visual sense, this was a small farm’s website with only a few photos. But I wasn’t here for award-winning graphic design. It was the words that looked amazing, the list of what I would receive throughout the year. Local pork and sausage. Free-range chicken and eggs. A duck, and duck eggs! Each new item had me more excited than the previous one. Quail! Pheasants! And best of all, a heritage-breed turkey, just in time for Thanksgiving.

This was my first foray into a CSA. As gardeners with an annual abundance that went far beyond our own consumption, my wife and I weren’t candidates for a classic fruit and vegetable CSA. But as I searched the internet, hunting for local meat sources in Connecticut, it was clear that this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. A MEAT CSA! What could be more perfect? This was about 4 years ago, and while some of the better farmer’s markets might have a local beef producer in attendance, pork and poultry were a little harder to come by. In one decision, I could solve my local food variety problem.

Nevertheless, I swallowed a bit hard as I hit Send on the email, committing to $600 for 6 pickups. While I appreciated the quality of locally produced foods, and I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to support independent producers, I was still adjusting to the cost. This was also quite a commitment to someone I had not yet met, who’s products I had not yet sampled. But that list of goodies was just too inviting to pass up.

And at the top of that list was our heritage-breed turkey. The previous Thanksgiving we had been shut-out in our search for a better bird, not realizing that there were waiting lists for such things, well behind the better prepared cooks who had signed up 6 months earlier. It was not to be that year, but I was determined to avoid repeating that mistake.

A lot has changed in 4 years. While industrially raised, broad-breasted white turkeys still make up 99.9% of turkeys eaten in the U.S., heritage breed turkeys have made a comeback. Thanks in part to conservancy groups, and to increasing consumer demand, more farms have taken on the challenge of raising local birds. As I write this, about 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, a 10 minute Google search gives me several Connecticut sources for either heritage breeds or locally raised broad-breasted whites. Three of them can be delivered.

Anyone who has found this probably doesn’t need a lesson in either the horrors of factory farming, or the joys of tasting properly raised meat. And even if you haven’t tasted heritage breed turkeys, you’ve probably heard the stories. They’re generally smaller than industrial turkeys, with a higher ratio of dark meat to breast meat. The taste is supposed to be amazing – richer and more flavorful, moister and juicier. Broad-breasted whites were chosen because they grow fast. Heritage breed turkeys mature slowly, building flavor.

A little over four years ago, I made the hour long drive for my first CSA pickup, and to see the flavor building in action. The farm was small, down a picturesque driveway through the woods and over a creek. Pigs and chickens lived happy lives, and the turkeys had a world of their own in the woods near the front of the property. We took home some of the best sausage I’ve ever had, amazing ground beef from a neighboring farmer, and my first duck eggs – impossibly rich and delicious.

It was on the third pickup, that I learned the bad news. The quail and pheasants had died young, and the turkeys had been eaten by foxes. These days I keep a flock of laying hens, and the experience has taught me much about the fragility of livestock and the ferociousness of predators. But back then this was a shock, potentially a crushing blow to my dreams of a local Thanksgiving.

Not all was lost however, as a neighboring farm had supplied them with a new set of poults. Fence repairs had been made, security was fortified, we would have our turkey after all! They were behind on their development though, so we had a decision to make. Did we want an 8 lb turkey at Thanksgiving, or a 12 lb turkey at our final pickup in December? I knew the heirloom breeds would be smaller, but 8 lbs seemed kinda puny. We’d been eating 4 lb chickens from our CSA, and a turkey 3 times that large sounded about right. We opted for December.

That meant that we were back at square one for Thanksgiving. After our initial investment, I certainly wasn’t about to splurge on a second heritage breed turkey. I also wasn’t about to skip the turkey either. While I don’t consider myself a slave to tradition, turkey for Thanksgiving just feels right. In spite of the memories of my Grandmother’s over-cooked version, or my Aunt’s over-cooked version, I have a turkey ideal that’s imprinted deep in my psyche. Maybe most Americans do. So even though it would be a factory bird purchased at a chain grocery store, it was Thanksgiving and we were eating turkey.

And it was delicious. Would the heritage breed version have been better? Perhaps. Probably. But there’s more to a holiday meal than the quality of the principal ingredient. I had a relaxing day to reflect on life, and enjoy a long slow meal with my family. In that sense, on Thanksgiving almost everyone is Slow Food for a day. And not to brag, but it was expertly cooked, as were the side dishes and dessert. Even though the turkey wasn’t local, most everything else was, some of it grown maybe 20 feet from the table we were eating at.

A month later we returned for the long awaited bird, only to be thwarted again. It was raccoons this time, I believe. The fortified fences were insufficient. Instead we left with an extra chicken, an unsatisfied feeling inside, and a sense that it just wasn’t meant to be.

So where is our turkey coming from this year? I’m actually not sure yet. In four years we’ve never corrected our experience from the past, never even tried a heritage breed turkey. We’ve certainly had many other food related adventures, and we’ve grown in our commitment to Slow Food principals, grown as both cooks and informed consumers. Maybe this is the year we try it again. 10 minutes on Google, 3 places that deliver.

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