I think I must have heard the question, “White meat or dark meat?” thousands of times. After all, over the years I’ve sat down with family and friends to thousands of Thanksgiving dinners. The question I’ve rarely if ever heard on Thanksgiving Day and that I haven’t really pondered until now is this: “Heritage or industrially manufactured turkeys?”
Fact is I don’t really know much about the turkeys that I have been eating ever since I was a boy and that I usually smothered in gravy, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. Who cared about the bird? It was the fixings that wet my appetite. The drumsticks and the wings were just props on an over-sized plate that was piled high and that gave me pause. Where to poke my fork and where to begin? It was almost too much. In fact, it was way too much.
The American fear of hunger and starving to death, along with the obsession about food, seems to spike at Thanksgiving, the day consecrated to over eating. As nearly ever kid knows, the Pilgrims would have died on the edge of the wilderness if the Indians hadn’t fed them.
Moreover, during the Depression of the 1930s millions of unemployed, homeless citizens went to bed hungry night after night. My dad did. I was raised on his tales of hunger. It was almost as though I was born hungry. Today, in 2015, millions of men, women and children still go to bed hungry, though on Thanksgiving they can eat turkey at a soup kitchen and feel at least briefly like they belong to the world of the comfortable and well fed.
All around the U.S. and everywhere that Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, more and more farmers are raising heritage breeds, and, while they’re only a fraction of the market — 25,000 as opposed to 200,000,000 industrially produced birds — the market for heritage birds is growing. Indeed, it’s growing right here in Sonoma County, once a major chicken and egg capital of the nation, and now increasingly a region that produces quality ducks and turkeys.
Catherine and Chuck Thode raise heritage turkeys in Sebastopol, on a small parcel – 2 & ½ acres — on Mill Station Road, just outside city limits. Members of Slow Food Russian River, they’re helping to rear a new generation of young farmers who belong to 4-H and who raise turkeys from Valley Ford to Sonoma. The Thode boys have helped with the “Turkey Project,” now in its tenth-year. Slow Food Russian River is the co-sponsor along with 4-H. This year there are eleven members of the project who are involved in every aspect and with pride and grit.
On their Sebastopol spread, the Thodes have more than 100 birds that have ample room to wander about, strut and gobble in a pen that keeps them safely confined and keeps predators like raccoons out. There’s a separate area for the turkeys — both the colorful toms and the plain hens — that are used for breeding. For the Thode’s, the point, or at least one of them, is to multiply the number of heritage turkeys, preserve the breed, and educate foodies and consumers about the cause.
“If you wanna save ‘em, you gotta eat ‘em,” Catherine Thode tells me. She adds, “I think I heard that phrase first from Frank Reese who operates Good Shepard Poultry Ranch and who has championed the cause of saving heritage turkeys.”
Reese, a fourth generation Kansas farmer, has been raising poultry for sixty years. He still loves the work he’s chosen to do. “Good animal husbandry revolves around the animals’ well being, and implies the farmer’s responsibility to care for his animals and the consumers’ concern for their welfare,” Reese says. “Poultry have been domesticated and rely on human caretakers; they are under our responsibility of ethical stewardship.”
The Thodes aim to live in accord with Reese’s gospel of farming, to be good shepherds and create lasting relationships with customers who care about the way that farm animals are treated while they’re alive, the way they’re slaughtered — “processed” as Catherine Thode calls it — and the way that they taste at the dining room table.
Reese would probably approve of the Thodes’ modest operation. The baby turkeys – know as poults who live together in clutches — spend the first few weeks of their lives indoors. They’re fed organic feed —milled locally by Hunt & Behrens in Petaluma — and they’re protected from marauding critters and slaughtered humanely on the farm where they spend their whole lives. There’s no traumatic journey to a distant slaughterhouse and the birds are never frozen so they don’t loose their distinct flavor. Moreover, each and every bird is labeled by the breed: “Narragansett” or “Bronze.” Customers know what they’re getting and for the most part they get what they want. “We do our best to match people with a specific bird,” Catherine says. “Sometimes I reserve one for us and it gets taken. So I take another.”
A decade ago, she joined the heritage turkey cause in part because she liked the way that heritage turkeys taste. “Growing up in Virginia I didn’t care for turkey dinners,” she explains. “Then I had a heritage bird and I said, ‘Wow.’ There’s a lot of be said for them. They cook faster, the flavors are more complex, the meat is moister and there’s usually more dark meat than there is on a factory produced turkey.”
She knows the ways of the the hens; they usually start to lay eggs in March and April and continue to lay them until mid summer. Turkeys have a 28-day incubation period. The babies hatch from April to June. Mature birds molt – loose their feathers – in September and October. After years of listening, she has also learned to recognize their sounds, body language and mating habits.
“Our loyal customers are really heart-warming,” Catherine says. “A woman called this morning and ordered a turkey. She said that last year’s was the best she ever tasted.”
This November at the Live Stock Conservancy National Conference held in Santa Rosa, one of the highlights is a big turkey event and auction. Billed as “The Age of Flavor,” this year’s conference will bring together farmers from around the country. It will also highlight the heritage turkey cause that the Thodes have helped to spread by their stewardship and animal husbandry.
Jonah Raskin is a member of Slow Food Russian River.
Photo Credit Karen Preuss. Photo shows Catherine Thodes banding a turkey with the help of her son earlier this summer.