“…is a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards…with a red Coat on.” So wrote Benjamin Franklin, tongue at least partly in cheek, in a 1784 letter to his daughter, noting that “this respectable Bird” and “true original Native of America” would have been superior to the bald eagle as the fledgling republic’s national emblem.
Looking ahead to Thanksgiving
Encountering this delicious quotation prompted us to do some gobbler Googling. In particular, we wondered how wild turkeys we’ve seen around town (the handsome fellow, above right, was photographed in Brookline!) compare to domestic turkeys, in particular, the free-range turkeys reared by Misty Knoll Farms of New Haven, VT, purveyed by Kinnealey Quality Meats in nearby Brockton, and prepared and served by Jules.
Before tapping into search engines, we called our friend Louise Miller, who was born on a small farm in Shaver’s Creek, PA, and married 60-plus years to a hunter of small and large game.
“Some people don’t like wild turkey, because it’s all dark meat and they say it tastes gamey, but I much prefer wild to a supermarket bird. Jack, my husband, liked hunting turkey. He’d just park himself near a tree, where he thought they would be…where he’d seen signs of scratching…and he’d set there and call them. Gobblers will come to find the hen, but they’re sneaky. They can come up right behind you and you never know it. It’s harder–and takes more patience–to get a wild turkey than it does a deer.”
A key distinction between wild and store-bought birds stems from the fact that most commercially raised turkeys are selectively bred to grow faster and develop more breast meat than wild turkeys. Which leads to the question: Where do free-range birds fit in? They’re not wild. They’re not cooped up. Are naturally raised free-range turkeys something ‘in between’?
Why range free?
Up until the 20th century, green feed and sunshine (for the vitamin D) were fundamental to poultry rearing, because these ‘ingredients’ were required to raise healthy birds. But with the discovery of vitamins A and D, in the 1920s, the number of free-range poultry farms began to decline. While some large commercial breeding flocks were reared on pasture into the 1950s, advances in nutritional science led to increased confinement. Gathering up flocks and putting them all in one place allowed poultry to be raised on a commercial scale.
Of course while confinement yields efficiencies, it also presents problems. Today, the vast majority of the 260 million commercially raised turkeys in the US spend their lives in enclosed, artificially lit and ventilated sheds that house thousands of birds. Overcrowding–often extreme–causes stress hormones to rise, which increases aggression and accounts for a variety of other health problems. And, when disease occurs, it can easily spread.
In contrast, the advantages of a free-range approach are many. According to Compassion for World Farming:
- Turkeys allowed to exercise and behave naturally have stronger, healthier legs
- Access to fresh air and daylight means better eye and respiratory health
- Health problems associated with a fast growth rate are minimized because free-range farms often raise slower-growing breeds
Free-range turkeys from Misty Knoll Farms
The free-range turkeys we know and love are those from family-owned and -operated Misty Knoll Farms, in New Haven, VT. When old enough to withstand Vermont’s cool nights, they are sheltered in open barns and have free access to natural pasture, sunlight, and fresh water. Because the turkeys range free on the farm’s meadows, and because they are fed wholesome grain that is free of antibiotics and animal by-products, their lives–compared to factory-farmed turkeys–are natural and relatively stress-free.
This time of year, as another cold Vermont winter approaches, Misty Knoll turkeys–like any bird in the wild–plumpen up. Allowed to grow naturally to size, they are robust and meatier, and–when roasted–they will be juicy from wholesome feed, rather than from the injected oils and additives applied to factory-farmed birds. And, because they’re graded and processed on-site and by hand, only the finest birds are offered for sale. While it takes a little longer to rear birds in a free-range environment, Misty Knoll Farms feels good about being able to offer such healthy and nutritious turkeys. And Jules Catering’s Executive Chef Albert Rosada agrees.
Roasted free-range, organic turkeys from Jules
“The turkey breasts we’re roasting today are 22- to 24-pounds–the biggest breasts you can get,” explained Jules Catering’s Executive Chef, Albert Rosado. “Misty Knoll Farms turkeys are wonderful because they’re not full of fat or muscle–and they’re tender. The quality of the meat is grade A”
We asked Albert why he sports a meat thermometer in his pocket. “I need to keep checking. We want to roast white-meat turkey to 160 degrees,” he explained.
Seconds after Albert finishes slicing, he passes breast meat along to Line Cook Jeff Ginyard, who ladles hot gravy. Moments later the turkey is sealed and wrapped, locked up in an insulated cart, and wheeled out the door!
Mmmm, that turkey looks so moist and smells so great. What else is on the menu? we inquired.
“Oh, we’ve got lots of great menu items,” replied Line-Chef Jeff, as he handed me the order sheet. “Today, for example, some of our corporate clients will be enjoying this little preview of a Thanksgiving feast.”
PRE-THANKSGIVING LUNCH MENU
Roast Turkey with Herbed Bread Stuffing
Butternut Squash Ravioli in Basil Cream Sauce (Vegetarian Entrée)
Mashed Potatoes with Sweet Potato Swirls
Field Greens with Apple and Cheddar
Roasted Fall Vegetables
Warm Apple-and-Pear Crisp with Whipped Cream
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin circa 1785 by Joseph Duplessis: National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain
Male Wild Turkey, Brookline, MA: Sasha Kopf, Wikimedia Commons
Louise Miller Talks Turkey: Liz Muir
The Turkeys by Claude Monet: WikiPaintings, Public Domain
Misty Knoll Farms Turkeys: Rob Litch
Turkey Prep at Jules Catering (3 photos): Liz Muir
Misty Knoll Farms is an active member of the Vermont Fresh Network (VFN), a state-wide organization dedicated to building innovative partnerships among Vermont farmers, chefs, and consumers to strengthen Vermont’s agriculture.