Sharon November 17th, 2009
If you want to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner wholly from scratch, you start ahead of time. If you want to make it from food you’ve raised yourself, you start way, way ahead of time – like in January of the year before. In some ways, it starts even earlier, but January is the new year – and when you grow your own, you are always thinking of the future – even if not consciously about any particular dinner.
It is in January that we order seeds for the vegetables we’d serve at Thanksgiving, that we debate which varieties of pumpkin and carrots, celery root, sweet corn and leeks we’ll need.
We are thinking Thanksgiving, faintly, distantly, in February, when we order turkey poults, or begin watching the turkey hens for signs of setting her eggs, and when we place the order for seed potatoes, or begin organizing last year’s potatoes for replanting.
We are thinking vaguely of Thanksgiving in March, when I set sweet potatoes in water on the window to develop slips for next year. And in April when we finally go out on the first warm day and plant potatoes.
We are thinking Thanksgiving in May, when I carefully start “winter luxury” pie pumpkins in newspaper cups filled with soil, to ensure a healthy supply of pumpkin pie, and when we watch the apple blossoms anxiously on cold nights, to track our future apple pies. We wait for the turkey poults to arrive, or for the hen to hatch her eggs.
In June, when we hoe the corn, we recall that we will want this corn, creamed at the groaning board in November. In July, on hot nights, when the dream of roast turkey seems unappealing, we are still, in some measure, aware of Thanksgiving at the back of our minds as we go out to pick slugs off the squash vines, and pull the garlic that we will use to flavor the potatoes.
In August, we know that summer is winding down, and it is in small part Thanksgiving that we are driving towards as the turkeys range around the yard chasing bugs and we are putting up raspberry pie filling and pickled peaches. We dry the sweet corn, after we devour our fill, thinking, again, of days to come.
In September, as the first breath of cool air floats through the barnyard, we’re thinking Thanksgiving as we dig potatoes and watch for frost, hoping for a few more nights to ripen the pumpkins to rich netted orange, a little more sizing up for the Hubbard Squash, already huge and warty and green.
In October, as the day approaches and the turkeys reach maturity, Thanksgiving appears from the back of our minds and occasionally touches the fronts. When will the turkeys be ready for butchering? When can the ones we’ve sold be picked up, and do we have enough freezer space? We pull a parsnip from the ground and taste its frost-sweetened flavor in anticipation.
November, of course, is the culmination of our efforts – we mash and roast and sauce and sautee. The turkey gets the most attention, but Thanksgiving is the feast of roots, the only time we, as a nation, all fully celebrate those under-loved vegetables that come up from the ground. It is the only meal many Americans actually cook for themselves, and sit down with family for. At our house, we have done most of the long anticipatory work, and we rest on our laurels – at least until it is time to cook.
Now it doesn’t always work this smoothly – last year we had no turkey hens that were worth wintering over, and so we had to order poults. But for some reason the hatchery’s hatch failed, and we were told that we wouldn’t be receiving our turkey poults until early July. Since these are older breeds, that need a full six month’s growth, rather than the modern hybrids which can’t breed on their own, we needed them earlier. But we weren’t about to go sit on the eggs ourselves, so we shrugged and accepted it – sometimes farming is like that.
So now we find ourselves approaching the holiday with turkeys a bit too small for butchering – we weren’t able to provide customers with Thanksgiving turkeys this year, although plenty are happy to take them for Christmas or Chanukah. Ah well. I still can’t imagine my barnyard without some turkeys. We’re going to my mother’s, and had planned to bring the bird, but she’s sourced a lovely local one near her house, and life will go on.
Now if you are thinking of raising your own turkey, you should know two things. The first is that all the comments about turkeys being dumb as rocks are pretty much true. The second, much less commonly known thing is that turkeys are extremely endearing. Their profound stupidity only makes them cuter, somehow.
I know people who claim that only the hybrid turkeys are dumb, but we haven’t found this to be true. We’ve raised the broad breasted whites, as well as Blue Slates, Bourbon Reds and Black Spanish (we have all three of the latter this year, since I’m doing a comparison). The whites may be a bit more dim, but this is a comparison mostly without meaning. All of them are easily confused. One of my Blue Slates last year killed himself because he panicked at the sight of our dog (who was not paying any attention to him) and ran straight into a metal fence post and brained himself. If the gate to our goat pasture is open, it forms a V shape with our fence – in order to go out the gate, an animal simply needs to walk around the gate and go out. The turkeys of all breeds are completely incapable of figuring this out, and inevitably have to be rescued from panicky misery as everyone else heads into the barn, and two poor birds who have forgotten that they could either walk around or fly over the fence stare in painful dismay.
But unlike hybrid meat chickens, which are dumb and repulsive, turkeys are vacant and sweet. They make endearing little peeping noises (they don’t gobble until they are full adults) when they are small, and they really like people. Ours follow us everywhere we go, and will sit on the fence and talk to us, while we talk back to them. Even their faces are sweet, to my eyes – in that Lyle Lovett, so-ugly-they-are-cute sort of way.
We will be keeping three of the bourbon reds over the winter, to hatch out our own poults again next year – hopefully avoiding future hatchery mishaps. I may also add the old standard bronze – not the hybrid, but the smaller one that can still breed normally, since they too are endangered. My hope is that the following year, we’ll have enough broody hens and enough good turkeys to offer poults through our local farmer’s market.
I know that relying on distant mail order for breeding stock for my birds is not sustainable, and we are gradually picking and choosing breeds of birds to focus on, and hoping to begin small scale hatching locally to provide one more pocket of resilience in our community. We know that no matter how hard times get, most people won’t want to give up their Thanksgiving turkey, and so propagating stock locally is essential.
Just as we trying to grow our own, and save seed, and share seed with others, we are trying to recreate what once existed – Thanksgiving is a meal that echoes with the tastes of the past, and with a local cultures whose vestiges still exist, and that can be restored. We want to have food worth being grateful for, after all. Besides, we like turkeys. Brains aren’t everything, you know.