The centerpiece of any homegrown Thanksgiving meal, assuming you are not a vegetarian, is inevitably the homegrown turkey. And there are a lot of good reasons to get a local turkey or raise your own – there’s the flavor which is richer and deeper, an essence of turkey thing, there’s the fact that you know what went into it. And there’s the fact that by raising older breeds of turkeys, you actually preserve their future by eating them – honestly, there is no retirement home for elderly turkeys, and no one keeps them as pets. The future of the Blue Slate and the Standard Bronze depends heavily on their future as meat animals – and the extinction of a breed of livestock is a tragedy.
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. The domestication of many animals obviously reduces their instincts and their wild intelligence, but turkeys are the apex of stupid – the difference between the wild turkey and the tame one is far greater than between the wolf and the dog or wild cattle and the Jersey. Why this is I don’t know, but it is.
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. 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. 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, and begin to rely less on distant hatcheries for our stock.
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.