by Maria Reidelbach
Pasture-raised turkeys at Four Winds Farm in Gardiner. Photo
by S. Mitrovich.
The other night, at the end of a long day, I was cooking supper on the fly. It was just a simple rice-cooker pilaf and a salad. As I plated up the food, a lovely realization dawned. The earthy pilaf was made with succulent honey mushrooms I had foraged in High Falls after the mid-October rains; sweet, crispy pan-roasted chestnuts from my friend Cynthia’s tree; Wild Hive Farm’s rich and chewy wheat berries; plus a little fresh marjoram and parsley from the yard. A side salad of spicy arugula from Good Flavor Farm and colorful tomatoes from Whirligig Farm made a fresh, juicy contrast. All of it was locally grown, delicious, healthful, even economical. I was able to make an awesome dinner this easily only because of the generosity of Mother Nature, farmers and neighbors, for whom giving is an abiding ethos. The Mid-Hudson Valley is an extraordinary and wonderful place, with natural beauty, picturesque farms, great old architecture, and a fabulous variety of locally grown food. Our community is full of talented, engaged people who create wonderful civic life—from musical, theatrical, and art events, barn dances, and festivals to farmers markets, workshops and classes, volunteer fire departments, enthusiastic elections, Repair Cafes, and the O+ Festival. How lucky we are to be sharing this corner of the planet at this moment!
Speaking of being thankful—it’s turkey time! When asked to envision a turkey, most of us would flash from a roasted bird on a platter to a plump, dark fowl with a fan
for a tail, and some Pilgrims hovering in the background, and then maybe to a childishly drawn hand-turkey. Pretty simplistic. Turns out that the turkey is a fascinating bird that indigenous people in southern Mexico domesticated over 2,000 years ago. Exploring Spaniards took turkeys back to Europe in the 16th century and they caught on quickly. Europe was in the midst of the Age of Discovery and novel imported products were pouring in from all directions. Even back then, marketers knew that exotic names added caché to merch, depending on the current trend. By mistake or design, when these birds became popular in England, they were thought to come from the Mideast and called Turkey fowl. English being our “mother tongue,” the misnomer migrated back to here to take root. (Funny that in Italy, they are known as pollo d’India, and in France, dinde.)
These days, it’s pretty hard to find local people who eat wild turkey—last year only about 200 were shot in Dutchess and Ulster counties combined. Bryan Graham, founder of Fruition Chocolates in Shokan, was raised on wild game, and tells me he loves it because it’s so much more flavorful. Wild turkeys have an active, foraging daily life and exercise all their muscles. That’s what creates richer dark meat, and even their breasts are dark. Wild turkeys are pretty lean as well, and dryness can be an issue. Plus, wild turkeys are notoriously difficult to hunt—they’re smart! These all must have been reasons that Natives domesticated turkeys early on.
Turkey became a favorite food all over the world and farmers developed myriad breeds with colorful names like Bourbon Red, Midget White, and Standard Bronze. Now, virtually all of the turkey sold in the United States is the Broad Breasted White, but there are a few farms in our area that raise a variety of the old strains. Peter Davies at Turkana Farms in Germantown says that heritage breeds of turkey have superior flavor and texture. He told me that 12 years ago, when he and his partner Mark Scherzer started farming, some old breeds had dwindled to only 200 survivors. Interested foodies and farmers lead to their revival. “Eat a turkey, save a turkey,” is his mantra.
The Karl Family Farms in Modena grow heritage breeds, too. Farmer Kris said that a turkey’s diet is also an important factor in the flavor of the meat. Pastured turkeys, like the ones they grow, omnivorously forage about half of their diet, gobbling down grass, nuts, seeds, roots, insects, and even the odd frog or lizard, augmented with grain-based turkey feed. Pasture-raised turkeys get lots of exercise, which also affects the meat—just as with wild turkeys—making it a bit darker and denser.
|Photo by S. Mitrovich.|
Heritage breed, pasture-raised turkeys take a long time to raise—nine months for most. Compare that with a factory-raised Broad Breasted White turkey, which reaches weight in three months! The BBW turkey is bred to efficiently convert food to flesh (50% better than older breeds) and they’re confined and don’t exercise. That’s why supermarket Butterballs costs so much less than pastured heritage turkey. But those inexpensive factory turkeys lead a sad and unhealthy life—they are literally cooped up and gain weight so fast that often their legs can’t hold them.
If you want to avoid factory turkey and a rare turkey isn’t in your budget, there is a middle ground. Local farms are pasture-raising the Broad Breasted White. When these guys can run around outdoors, they gain weight more slowly and their legs are able to strengthen as they grow. The meat flavor and texture benefits from the foraged diet. Because of their bred-in super efficient food conversion rate, these birds reach maturity in five to six months. They are still more expensive than a factory bird, but when you consider that the turkey is the centerpiece of a special, celebratory, symbolic meal, and that buying local turkey supports our neighbors and community, doesn’t it seem like a bargain?
There are plenty of farms in Dutchess and Ulster raising turkeys. In all cases, it’s best to order in advance—and some are selling out now, so don’t delay! A quick google search will lead you to: Four Winds Farm (Gardiner), Full Moon Farm (New Paltz), Hahn Farm (Salt Point), Karl Family Farms (Modena), North Wind Farm (Tivoli), Old Ford Farm (New Paltz), Quattro’s Farm (Pleasant Valley), High Falls Food Coop (Campanelli’s Poultry Farm turkeys), Turkana Farms (Germantown), Upstate Farms of Highland (Red Hook), Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats (Kingston).
Maria Reidelbach is an author and applied artist living, working and eating in Accord, NY.