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Essay: Bourbon For Dinner | Raising Heirloom Turkeys

Raising four testosterone-crazed Bourbon Red turkeys in a backyard coop is not easy, as novelist Barbara Kingsolver discovers. But the results pay off at Thanksgiving.

In years past I've always risen early on Thanksgiving Day, excited to begin the work ahead. In the frosty dawn, I harvest scallions and sage from the garden behind my house on the outskirts of Tucson. Then I hurry back to the warm kitchen to sauté the herbs with chestnuts, mix the stuffing, dress the bird and tuck it into the oven so everything will be ready when my guests arrive in the afternoon.

This year my preparations began much earlier: in March, in fact, when a clerk from the post office called me with a tinge of desperation in her voice. "Ms. Kingsolver, we have a package for you and it's going 'Peep! Peep! Peep!'" Feeling something like a woman in labor, I raced downtown to retrieve my babies—turkey poults, just a day old, shipped from a hatchery specializing in heirloom breeds.

You see, I'm the sort of cook who likes to start from scratch.

Our household has raised poultry for years on a modest backyard scale. Because I've become so accustomed to really fresh eggs, I can't countenance the weak substitute that's sold in grocery stores. So I perked up when I read about the campaign by Slow Food USA to reacquaint Americans with the flavors of heritage turkeys, prized and bred for their rich taste. Several of these older breeds have become nearly extinct, replaced by the more economical, quick-fattening birds raised in factory farms. I considered the difference between fresh eggs and stale and wondered what sort of ho-hum quality I'd been settling for in the huge, pale turkeys I'd always bought.

The die was cast, finally, when I discovered that one of the rarest and tastiest of these birds, the Bourbon Red, was first bred near my hometown in Kentucky. My own grandmother may have encountered these birds as she played with neighbors' children in their barnyards. Now there are just 1,500 breeding Bourbon Reds left in the country. It struck me as a patriotic calling that I should help save this American breed from extinction.

My babies arrived in perfect shape, peeping at maximum volume (I got some funny looks from other customers in the P.O.). Since they'd been shipped just after hatching, their first view of the big world came when I helped them emerge from their box. They needed just what any baby needs—a place to stay warm and safe—so I gently put them into a makeshift brooder pen I'd made by hanging a lightbulb in a large dog crate, and urged them to discover food and water. And that was where I encountered my first problem in the turkey business: These poults were cute. Furthermore, they thought I was Mama and rushed happily to greet me whenever I appeared on the scene. I tried not to dwell on their destiny. I was increasing their numbers on the planet, sure, but one of them was going to be the guest of honor at our Thanksgiving table.

Inevitably, though, all adorable toddlers turn into teens. Spring arrived and my babies lost their downy fluff to a stiff adult plumage. Within a few weeks, it was warm enough to move the crate outdoors, where we let them roam during the day in our large, enclosed garden. We'd surrounded it with a high fence years ago to keep rabbits and raccoons from devouring our vegetables, but now it also kept out any roaming coyotes that might be thinking of having Thanksgiving early. At our little ranch in the desert, the food chain is a lively business.

Within a month, my turkeys had gained enough size that they were stomping on my tomato and eggplant seedlings, rather than just plucking delicately at insect pests. I moved them into their own 12-foot-square poultry coop, securely fenced (even over the roof) from the bobcats we'd seen prowling about, licking their feline lips. I researched organic feed sources and began to fatten my flock.

With the dawning of adolescent hormones in midsummer, the cuteness problem resolved itself, and how: Four of my five birds, by luck of the draw, were male. While the lone female did the turkey version of rolling her eyes, the four boys promptly forgot all about Mom and embarked upon a months-long poultry frat-boy party. Imagine the classic turkey display, as pictured in children's drawings, in which the male turkey spreads his colorful tail feathers in an impressive fan—times four, continuing nonstop for approximately five months. The boys also shimmied their wing feathers with a sound like rustling taffeta and stretched their necks high in the air and gobbled. A lot. Our nearest neighbor down the road called to ask, "Um, I don't mean to be nosy, but is your rooster sick?"

For all their macho tomfoolery, we also had to admire these guys. The Bourbon Red is a remarkably pretty breed, with a chestnut-red body set off by dazzling white wings and tail, and a good deal more personality than its all-white cousins, who are so famously dumb they don't know to come in out of the rain. Our boys at least knew that much.

They had a good summer, with sunshine and plenty of strutting room, feasting on organic corn and soy meal along with fresh greens the kids weeded from the garden (this gives the meat a healthier vitamin content than that of caged birds). But in the autumn, it was with a certain amount of relief that we set out to balance the male-female ratio of our turkey population. Some of these males were clearly unnecessary to the future of the breed. My youngest daughter, who'd been lobbying to name them, got to christen two: Mr. Thanksgiving and Mr. Christmas.

When harvest day arrived on a warm fall Saturday, we assembled around 20 people at our house, a party that probably bore little relation to the first Thanksgiving except insofar as it was motley, energetic and open to unknown possibilities. Some of our friends (including a few vegetarians) were just curious and eager to help, while others were experienced in scalding, plucking and dressing turkeys; they even brought along some of their own birds, corralled in boxes in the back of their truck. We set a giant kettle of water over a fire, hung a pulley from a tree to hoist the heavy birds for plucking, set up a butchering area, carefully cordoned off safety zones for the children and went to work. The kids squealed and covered their eyes at certain moments, and to be honest I felt like doing the same, but we managed to harvest these birds as cleanly and sympathetically as any carnivore could. Everyone was fascinated, and some of the smallest hands helped most with the plucking. Some people might imagine this to be an odd family scene, but it had the simple feeling of a happy, cooperative festival. My children learned something about the processes we depend on for our survival, which strikes me as useful education. If you like to eat, I often tell them, you'd be wise to understand where your food comes from.

By late afternoon, our collective group had five birds plucked, dressed and resting on ice. Some would be frozen and later take their place on our families' holiday tables; some would become charcuterie—I'd harvested enough sage, rosemary and mild onions to send everyone home with the makings for delicious, low-fat sausage. And the breast of one bird was already on the rotisserie.

At dusk more than a dozen of us sat at a long table and enjoyed the freshest meat any of us, probably, had ever eaten, along with blue-potato salad and tomato-basil gazpacho prepared from our garden's bounty. We felt tired and blessed with the richness of our work and friendship.

Several weeks later, we defrosted Mr. Thanksgiving and he graced a wonderful celebration. He weighed 18 pounds, even without the outsize breast that's the trademark of factory-farmed turkeys, and was a pleasure to cook, remaining exceptionally moist and tender. Concerned that this leaner-than-usual turkey might dry out, I covered it with cheesecloth during roasting and basted frequently. But thanks to a thin layer of yolk-colored fat under the skin of the breast, the bird seemed to baste itself and gained a delicate aroma and flavor reminiscent of lobster. All our guests joined me in voting for the Bourbon Red as the richest tasting turkey, by far, we had ever eaten. We look forward to the increase of this bird, in numbers and popularity, all over the country, as well as in our own backyard coop.

But next time, we're hoping for girls.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of 11 books, including the novel The Poisonwood Bible and a recent collection of essays, Small Wonder.

Published November 2003
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