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"Talking Turkey" 


We have often thought of including a few words on the subject of the "free-range" turkeys that we raise - but never quite got around to it.  That is, until now when we came across this fine article and made arrangements to use it here.
"Talking Turkey" originally appeared in the Holiday 2003 issue of Food & Drink magazine, published by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and it was written by Robert Hercz.

The article is used here with permission.
LCBO
The only thing that we might add to the article is that each year we typically make arrangements to smoke a few before putting them in the freezer - now there is a special feast!

The photograph is one of ours - we call it "Tom, Dick & Harry".

 

Turkeys
 

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"Talking Turkey":  We Canadians are a forward-looking people, so when you pick up your Christmas turkey from your supermarket or butcher, you'll probably be thinking more about its future than its past. That turkey, however, has a fascinating story.

The wild turkey is a North America bird, domesticated 2,000 years ago by the Aztecs, who ate its meat and used its feathers for necklaces, ornamentation, and arrows. They traded a thousand birds a day in their markets, and celebrated a turkey festival every 200 days. Mayan royal feasts included turkey meat wrapped in corn tortillas. By the time the Spanish arrived, turkeys were the primary source of domesticated meat in the New World. Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortes both tasted turkey, and both transported live specimens back to Spain. The meat soon became a popular substitute for tough, stringy peacock at the banquets of the aristocracy, and European domestication spread from Spain to Italy and France.

The bird reached England in 1541, where it was named turkey-cock, a term already in use for a North African guinea fowl traders brought in via Turkey. That's one theory; the name could also have come from Columbus, who, thinking he had landed in India and was looking at a relative of the peacock, named the bird "tuka"-peacock in the Tamil language of India. Others think the name comes from the "turk-turk-turk" sound the birds make when they're afraid. In any case, it's only a turkey in English. In Turkey, it's a "hindi," and in Hindi, it's a "peru." The French got the geography nearly right: to them, a turkey hen is a dinde, a contraction of d'Inde-"from the Indies." (The tom is a dindon.)

When the Pilgrims sailed to America in 1620, they were not only familiar with turkey, they actually carried some of the domesticated European stock aboard the Mayflower. The first American Thanksgiving in 1621 was not a new holiday with unfamiliar fare, but a version of an old English tradition, the Harvest Festival, with the traditional goose replaced by the more readily available turkey.

The wild turkey is an admirable bird. A relative of the pheasant, it is one of the fastest of the game birds, able to fly short distances at up to 90 kilometers per hour and run at up to 40 kilometers per hour. Its eyesight and hearing are superbly acute, as every turkey hunter knows all too well. The male has beautiful iridescent bronze and green plumage, although the naked head and neck, with its red caruncle (a fleshy growth on the upper neck) and snood (a bulbous, fleshy growth that flops downward over the beak) are probably attractive only to other turkeys. Wild turkeys are polygamous; in the spring, toms gobble (hens don't-they make a clicking sound), strut, and fan their tails to attract a harem of females. During the day, turkeys forage on the ground for seeds, berries, buds and grubs (and the occasional frog, lizard, or snake); at night they fly into trees to roost.

One of the wild turkey's most ardent admirers was U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin, who proposed it as the American national bird, and was mightily disappointed when a bird of "bad moral character," the bald eagle, was chosen instead. "The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America," wrote Franklin in a letter to his daughter.

Hunting and destruction of habitat brought the wild turkey perilously close to extinction; by 1930 there were only 30,000 birds left in the United States (it had disappeared from Ontario, its only Canadian habitat, in 1902). But the species has been reintroduced with spectacular success: there are now six million wild turkeys in the U.S., and they are found in every state except Alaska. It has also been brought back to Canada, with new populations established in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as its old southern Ontario haunt, where there are now almost 50,000 wild birds.

The turkey on your Christmas table, however, is not a wild turkey. It's a Broadbreasted White, a breed developed in the 1950s and now the only variety in large scale production. The Broadbreasted White is not an admirable bird but a pathetic one. It can't fly at 90 kilometers per hour; it can't fly into a tree to roost. In fact, it cannot fly at all. It can't even run. It's too heavy. It has been bred to grow such large breasts of prized white meat that it is prone to toppling, and, once down, may be unable to stand up on its own. A tom's chest is so large that he is physically unable to mate with a hen; all domesticated turkeys are brought into the world through artificial insemination. They've been bred to have white feathers so as not to offend consumers with unsightly pigment spots under the skin when plucked.

Broadbreasted Whites live short, sheltered lives. They roam freely in environmentally-controlled open barns housing thousands of birds. They put on weight fast, not because they're fed hormones and steroids-which are illegal in Canada-but because they have constant access to food and water and because selective breeding has produced ever more gluttonous birds. In 1960, it took 22 weeks to raise a 10-kilogram turkey; now it takes 151/2 weeks. The heavier toms are processed into cutlets, sausage, and deli meats, and the smaller hens are sold whole for the oven.

Of course, all this progress has a price. Intelligence, for example, seems to have been lost in breeding. In a forthright 1947 manual on turkey farming, author G.T. Klein allows that, although wild turkeys are "wild and wary to the point of genius," those who raise domesticated turkeys "will be disgusted with their dumbness." The old canard about turkeys drowning in a rainstorm has more than a grain of truth: young turkeys don't know enough to seek shelter from the rain, and farm-raised turkeys don't have their mothers around to teach them. Before the age of eight or nine weeks, when their down is replaced by feathers, they are likely to die of exposure (not drowning) if they get wet. It's the same story with food: the poults (turkey chicks) must be taught to eat or they'll starve, even if they're surrounded by feed. In the wild, their mothers teach them. Turkey farmers make use of poults' natural attraction to bright colours: marbles or strips of foil are placed into their food, or their food is sprayed with green food colouring. In pecking at the colours, the turkeys learn to eat. Some never catch on and die; these are called "starve-outs."

Another loss, more relevant to the consumer, is the flavour and texture of the meat. Broadbreasted Whites are harvested young, before they build a flavourful layer of fat. Their white meat is naturally dry, which is why commercial "self-basting" turkeys are injected with solutions of vegetable oil, water, and salt, and why "brining" (soaking the turkey for hours in salt water) has become a popular at-home alternative. It's also the reason for the heritage turkey movement, a small but growing clamour to bring back breeds like the Bourbon Reds, Bronzes and Narragansetts, that were around before the Broadbreasted White, and raise them for a few extra weeks so they've developed a little fat. Those who've tasted them say the difference is enormous: they're thicker-skinned, the flesh is firmer, more succulent and juicy, and far more richly flavoured (especially the dark meat) than commercial birds.

Hope lies in the same forces that created the Broadbreasted White: the consumer. Fifty years ago, when we demanded lean white meat, we got lean white meat. If our tastes are now developing toward a richer tasting, darker meat, that is what will be provided, in any quantities we want. All we have to do is ask.

 

TURKEY TRIVIA AND LORE

* Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which ends with a redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge sending a prize turkey to his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, popularized the serving of turkey for Christmas. Until his 1843 story, goose was traditional fare for a London Christmas dinner.

* The southern U.S. tradition of deep-frying whole turkeys outdoors is gaining popularity. All you need is a 10 or 12 gallon pot filled with 4 or 5 gallons of oil heated to 350 F. Although it may take an hour to heat the oil, cooking time is only 3 minutes per pound. Deep frying produces a crisp skin, while sealing the moisture so the meat stays moist.

* According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest dressed weight for a turkey is 86 pounds (39 kg.), recorded on December 12, 1989.

* One in four of the world's turkeys is hatched by Cuddy Farms, headquartered in Strathroy, Ontario. Cuddy produces 130 million eggs a year from its four hatcheries in Ontario, the United States, and Europe.

* The Sesame Street character Big Bird wears a costume made of 4,000 turkey feathers dyed bright yellow.

* In the United States, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. The second Thanksgiving was more than 200 years later: Abraham Lincoln created the holiday in 1863, in response a 40-year campaign by magazine editor Sara Joseph Hale (author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb").

* In Canada, Thanksgiving was officially declared in 1879. In 1957, the date was changed from November 6 to the second Monday in October. Because it is a harvest festival and our growing season is shorter, it is celebrated 6 weeks earlier in Canada than in the U.S.

* Canadian researchers have found a way to raise turkeys on an inexpensive new diet: powdered maggots.


 
"Talking Turkey" is © Robert Hercz (rhercz@sympatico.ca), 2003 and is used here with permission.
 

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The "Holmestead" is located at:
140 Thunder Beach Road, 17th Concession, Township of Tiny,
ONTARIO, L9M 0T3, CANADA
 
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