I offered to host Thanksgiving year after year. My mother turned me down each time. She liked hosting the family get-together even though her kids and grandkids lived close enough to visit weekly. She preferred her wedding china and linens to my mismatched dishes and homespun tablecloth. Mostly she wanted to ensure that the meal featured homemade white crescent rolls and a large Butterball turkey filled with her own stuffing recipe. She was afraid that her annoyingly whole foods vegetarian daughter might prepare something horribly non-traditional, like nutloaf with chestnut wild rice dressing instead of turkey. Valid point.
But her health kept declining. I took to coming over early on Thanksgiving Day to stuff the turkey with her and hoist it in the oven. We all came back a few hours later with side dishes. I always brought homemade crescent rolls that looked suspiciously brown and healthy. Our meals continued to be lively events and we worked hard to make sure my mother didn’t notice how much we all helped out.
I knew she’d reached a new low in her energy level when she offered to let me host Thanksgiving a few years ago. She said I had to agree to one condition. I had to make a real turkey (not a Tofurky, she hastened to add) and stuff it with her stuffing recipe. I had to promise. I wanted to cry, knowing that she was much sicker than she let on. I promised.
But there was no way I was going to cook a typical grocery store turkey. I know these birds spend their short lives in tightly confined spaces, eating foods that aren’t natural to them. We raise pastured livestock on our little farm, so we drove nearly an hour to buy a similarly pastured turkey directly from the farmer. I felt particularly solemn as I prepared that first Thanksgiving meal at our house, knowing it was difficult enough for my mother to get from the car to the house so she could spend the day with us. At least the turkey was a hit. According to the meat-eaters in the bunch, it was the best they’d ever had. It was also so juicy that it overflowed the pan. That’s something grocery store birds don’t do, even though they’re injected with a “7% solution containing water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphate and natural flavors.”
But that pastured turkey was astonishingly expense. We thought we might be able to raise a flock of our own more cheaply. We were wrong. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Nearby farmers gently told us that we were foolhardy. They warned us to keep turkeys “on wire,” indoors, and away from what they said were the disease-carrying dangers of grass. They said our plan to avoid feed pumped up with medications and synthetic vitamins would leave us with a dying flock. Online articles repeated these woeful predictions.
Still, the next spring we bought turkey chicks. They were raised in the warmth of an Amish friend’s kitchen until they were old enough to live outdoors.
On our place they lived in what’s called a “tractor.” This is a movable coop, allowing the birds access to fresh areas to forage. My husband and oldest son built it with roosts and feeders. We soon learned turkeys toss food from feeders and don’t like to roost. Out came both of those modifications. Then to forestall problems with predators we added a movable electric fence.
How much our rapidly growing chicks ate surprised us. In addition to the roots, grasses, leaves, and bugs they scratched up on their own we provided them with a locally grown and ground mix of seeds and grain. And we gave them fresh organic produce from the garden each day. They had strong preferences. One day they might eagerly eat cucumbers and squash, the next day they refused to eat those veggies but enjoyed tomatoes. They turned up their beaks at plenty of other treats, like broccoli and rutabagas.
We found turkeys quite interesting. When they’re young they peep and squawk. Then the gobble develops, something we found relentlessly amusing. Hens don’t gobble. They chirp and cluck in their own quiet manner while the toms are prone to showy displays of exaggerated feather fluffing. The toms gobbled at any noisy airborne attraction including Canada geese, crows, and helicopters. When annoyed, their heads turned iridescent blue and sometimes they engaged in snood-grabbing jousts. Our dogs were fascinated by the turkeys, but the turkeys showed little interest in creatures beyond their own genus.
All day, every day the flock had a visitor. A little brown hen moseyed up from the back of our property to visit her fowl friends. She stayed close. She pecked at grass and bugs, sometimes a few feet away and sometimes a few inches away. When we gave the turkeys a treat from the garden like a monster zucchini she’d cluck at me, waiting for her own piece. Quite often the turkeys, in their zucchini-enhanced exuberance, tossed flecks of what they were eating almost as if to share. Their friend the hen was right there waiting for those offerings. I never saw the turkeys peck at her.
What we learned about turkeys wasn’t entirely charming. Full grown turkeys are huge. Some of ours were over 80 pounds. Their poo, I’m sorry to say, was also huge. I never realized just how foul it was until I slipped and fell in it. And despite the overall health and vitality of our flock, once we factored in all the expenses there wasn’t any profit at all. Plus, after feeding and chatting with them for six months, it felt like a horrible betrayal to take them to the butcher.
This year we let the turkey farming venture go. We’re gratefully buying a pastured turkey, knowing that it’s worth the cost. It’ll be cooked with my mother’s stuffing recipe. I’ll also be using my mother’s china and linens. We’ll sit here at a table filled with friends and family, fully aware that our blessings include those made of memory.
I’ll smile this Thanksgiving at all who are here with me. I’ll leave the sob in my throat, choosing instead to share fond and funny stories of my parents who I miss every day.
I realize now why every generation goes on celebrating even after the elders who made the traditions meaningful have gone. Holidays are a sort of bridge between past and future, a way of steadying ourselves with the idea that some things stay the same. When the time comes for me to pass along the honor of hosting Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll try passing along my mother’s stuffing recipe too.
Laura Grace Weldon is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending as well as Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm with her family where she's working on her new project, Subversive Cooking.com. and blogging optimistically.