Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Day Post

Something to be thankful for: Real turkeys are making a comeback (Grist)

Fascinating article throughout about the history of the turkey. This native American bird was once common in all sorts of varieties, now it's mass-produced for thanksgiving like so many iPods. But the diverse, and absolutely gorgeous breeds (now termed 'heirloom' turkeys), are being bred by foodies:
In 1997, The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) took a turkey census. For about half a century, nearly every turkey farm in the U.S. had been raising a breed known as the Broad Breasted White. (This cost-efficient, big-breasted bird has a lifespan of only 18 weeks and can neither fly, nor reproduce without artificial insemination). So when the ALBC went looking for other, older breeds of turkey, what they found was startling: They counted only 1,300 turkeys not bred for industrial purposes. In the whole country.

Fast forward to today, when “they have literally bred all of the turkey out of the turkey,” says Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, the largest USDA-certified organic farm in the state of Georgia. Harris raises American Standard Bronze turkeys, one of eight varieties identified by the ALBC as heritage breed turkeys—or birds descended from a continuous gene pool dating back to before the rise of the Broad Breasted White. Heritage birds can still mate naturally, and have a long outdoor lifespan and slow growth rate. Industrial turkeys, on the other hand, said Harris, “are satisfied to sit in one place and eat and defecate.”

At the time of 1997 census, the farmers who still raised heritage turkeys did so because they “had a true passion for them,” said Jennifer Kendall of the ALBC, not because they were profitable; until around 2000, the concept of heritage turkeys was unfamiliar even to more conscious eaters.
Turkeys are snapshot of what's wrong with Industrial Agriculture in this country:
When it comes to turkeys, or any kind of food, the existence of multiple, diverse varieties (i.e. biodiversity) is crucial to food security. “The analogy we like to use is a stock portfolio,” says Alison Martin, also of the ALBC. You wouldn’t want to put all your savings behind one stock, but “essentially that’s what commercial agriculture has done. In a time of global climate change and economic stress, doesn’t it make sense to have options for other production methods?”

That’s the theory behind Slow Food’s Ark of Taste project, “a catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction.” The Ark of Taste strives to preserve these endangered edibles (everything from American Rye Whiskey to Amish Pie Squash) both for their unique tastes and for the sake of the biodiversity of our food system. If we don’t, said Vaughn, “we’re going to do ourselves a disservice in terms of what we have access to in the future.”

Heritage turkeys were added to the ark in 2001. And farmers like Harris are crucial to their preservation efforts. His family farmed conventionally until the 1990s, when he “grew tired and disgusted with the excesses of modern industrial farming.” Harris stopped giving his cattle corn, hormones, and antibiotics, and stopped using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Then he added sheep and poultry to his flock of livestock, realizing it would benefit every aspect of his farm.

Nature wants a whole smorgasbord of different things out there grazing,” he says.

For eaters, a big draw of heritage turkeys—beyond the knowledge that they’re part of a diverse food system—is their “more rich, succulent” taste, says Kendall. Because they’re bred on pasture, as opposed to in cages, heritage birds also have stronger legs, with more thigh meat.

Industrial agriculture favors the bland,” Vaughn explains. “Because [Broad Breasted Whites] mature so fast, [they] don’t develop the rich flavor that heritage birds do.
It's the same old story: mass production at the cost of quality and the environment. And if that weren't enough to scare you, antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are starting to show in factory farmed birds:

Don't look now, but some turkey has antibiotic resistant superbugs (Grist)

Gee, why aren't I hearing that in any mainstream media outlets? Maybe if people start dying from our traditional all-American meal, it may cause us to have a dialog on the way we produce food. Hopefully it won't have to come to that. Sure, a "real" turkey costs more, but isn't thanksgiving supposed to be a special meal? It's sad that not everyone can afford it.

Also, Paul Krugman explains how Thanksgiving is actually un-American:
Think, for a minute, about what happened on the original Thanksgiving. (Yes, I know that there are doubts about what really happened, but never mind.)

Here’s how it went down: a bunch of people got together, with each group bringing what it could — the Wampanoag brought deer, the Pilgrims apparently shot some birds, etc.. Then everyone shared equally in the feast — regardless of how much they brought to the table. Socialism!

Worse yet, many of the lucky duckies benefiting from the largesse of this 17th-century welfare state were illegal immigrants. (That would be the Pilgrims).

We need to stop celebrating this deeply un-American event, and start celebrating something more in tune with the things that make America great, such as the Ludlow Massacre.
Finally, I can't help but note this anecdote from John Robb (via Nassem Taleb), the parable of the happy turkey:
  1. In the morning, a nice man comes for a visit.
  2. He puts food in your bowl.
  3. The food is fresh and tasty.
  4. The food is always in plentiful supply.
  5. At night there's a warm place to sleep.
  6. The next day, the process is repeated. The nice man visits, he feeds you, and you sleep comfortably. It repeats day after day.
  7. You think: everything is right with the world. How could anything possibly go wrong? In fact, the only thing I really have to fear is getting hit by lightening when it rains or a the rare chance a fox might get under the wire and into the coop (which very seldom happens). The Turkeys that worry about this are pessimists.
  8. One day, the nice man arrives.
  9. The nice man grabs you.
  10. He lays you across a stump, your neck exposed.
  11. He raises an axe and cuts off your head.
He uses it to explain how unexpected circumstances arise for investors, but I took a completely different meaning from it. So many people I know are kept comfortable and complacent by their nice, cozy corporate jobs. They have a nice house, nice car, big-screen T.V., cell-phone, retirement savings, health care, etc. They're just like the turkey - comfortable because everything is taken care of for them. Sure they're in debt- but that job will always be there, they think. The corporation will take care of me, as long as I play by the rules, they think.

But that comes at a price - like the turkey, they are in a prison. They are stuck in their cublicle-pens selling away the moments of their life one at a time, at the bottom of a pecking order, satisfied, in the words of the farmer above, to "sit in one place, eat, and defecate." But they're comfortable. The average American is like the domesticated turkey, bred for lethargy and stupidity, trading freedom for comfort, and unable even to attain freedom because it can no longer survive in the wild.

Then, one day the farmer comes with the axe. The job is gone. The bills are due. The jobs are moving overseas. the mortgage cannot be paid. You can't afford gas. By then, you realize the price of being a domesticated breed, the price of being reliant upon the farmer. You were only alive as long as you were useful to him. Now it's time to collect, and it's too late do anything about the situation.

So it is fitting that the turkey is the quintessential American bird. The sad story of the turkey seems to be the sad story of Americans - once a self-sufficient people, now reduced to sitting in cubicle pens with others taking care of us and awaiting the slaughter. And it looks like the plutocrats are sharpening their axes.

Happy thanksgiving!

 The Royal Palm turkey, a beautiful heirloom breed.

P.S. on a note related to the above: The Poor, The Near Poor And You.

P.P.S. And to end on a more positive note, Thanksgiving Scripture. The way we used to be.

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