Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nothing Free About Free Range

I ordered our turkey last week from the same Amish stand where I got a wonderful fresh turkey last year. This was supposed to be a quick errand. Stop in at the market and order another turkey, 18 pounds. When the sweet little Amish woman in her bonnet asked if I’d like a “free range” turkey this year (for just a dollar more a pound!), I was dumbstruck. Here I was, all along, thinking that my fresh Amish turkey was already pretty much “free range”. I couldn’t imagine the Amish cramming hundreds of turkeys in to a turkey house to fatten up on chemical laden foods while stepping on each other and fighting for air. I assumed (and we know what assuming does to you and me) all Amish turkeys had humane living conditions. I assumed that cute little children in black suspenders and straw hats chased them around the yard, much as my children take pleasure in herding our chickens. So, I was stopped in my tracks by the Amish woman’s question.

Did I want free range? Well, of course I did. But then my skeptical self starting taking over and I began to wonder if these noble looking Amish people were just taking advantage of the ignorant “English” people who shop their market. No one ever calls the Amish stupid. But a line was forming and I needed to make a decision, so I considered the facts. It’s Thanksgiving and this is the only turkey I buy each year, and even more importantly, this is the year my husband is certain he can beat the Germans! So I sprung for the extra buck and next week I’ll pick up our free range turkey who I presume is flitting around the range as I write this.

We have a collection of friends and relatives that numbers upwards of 20 people most holidays. Everyone pitches in and brings something, but we share the turkey preparations with some dear friends from Germany. This has become our tradition ever since we introduced them to the concept of an American thanksgiving the year we met them. They bring a deep fryer and we make a spectacle of the “great turkey drop” each year and the kids ohh and ahh as the turkey is ceremoniously lowered in to the pot. (see picture) As the years have gone by, a quiet competition has developed between my husband and our German friend. Sadly, my husband’s oven roasted turkey is good, but never quite as good as the deep-fried one. Maybe it’s the spectacle. Much is determined by expectations.

I returned to the Amish stand because last year’s turkey cooked up deliciously and it was the closest we’ve come to beating the deep-fried bird. My husband is determined to cook a superior bird. He schemes for months, changing his plan regularly. He reads helpful articles my mom sends his way about cooking the perfect turkey and he surfs the net looking for a recipe for the perfect bird. Seems a bird injected with spices and dropped in to boiling peanut oil is hard to compete with. But last year’s bird came really close. It was delish.

The plan this year is to smoke the turkey, literally. Over the weekend we had a practice run with the biggest chicken my little Amish lady could come up with. It was enormous and after slowly cooking it at a very low temp in the oven, it was smoked over hardwood, chemical free chips and turned out spectacular. I’ve never tasted a moister chicken. So now the challenge is to replicate the results with a turkey.

Much is resting on the turkey I ordered, so I’ve been reconsidering my bird ever since. I even did a little research on the internet. I wondered if beyond price, there was any difference between a “free range” turkey and the frozen butterball mass you pull out of the grocer’s freezer. Of course, the difference between the two depends completely on who you ask. I tried to be discerning and opt for sites that didn’t have a stake in the outcome.

Turns out turkeys are a sensitive issue. Some people get pretty worked up about the taste of a “heritage” turkey and others are simply not going to pay “a hundred bucks” for a turkey that doesn’t taste any different. Nutritionally, I couldn’t find a whole lot of difference, at least when it comes to the actual turkey meat. I did learn that a butterball is not just turkey. Its ingredients list states that it contains: “turkey, water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphates, and natural flavorings”. There are plenty of companies that sneak MSG in to their products by calling it “modified food starch” or “natural flavorings”, so I feel somewhat justified in my decision to steer clear of the store-bought variety.

Of course I lean towards the bird that was treated humanely, as we work hard to provide our own birds with luxury accommodations and I can tell when those birds are happy and content or miserable and grumpy. I’m sure that affects their ultimate taste (oh, let me have that one, I’d hate to waste valuable time finding a study to back me up).

There was one fact I read that gave me pause. Several sites stated that free range turkeys are leaner and should be cooked slower. And free range birds have more dark meat. Seems the traditional bird is bread to have abnormally huge breast meat and, as a consequence, these birds can’t really move around much. Physically they can’t free range, even if they were given the option. Hmmm. Now I have to figure out how to break the news to my hubby that I may have handicapped him from the start this year.

I think that making the decision to buy organic or free range or sustainably grown comes down to the issue of trust. I’m paying extra because I believe you when you say this turkey was raised free range, without antibiotics and hormones. Because really, there’s no way for me to know this and there’s no federal agency that’s checking up on a little Amish Farm that sells to it’s surrounding community. So I just have to trust that I’m not being snookered. And what if I am? Well, I guess that’s just the price I pay to help keep our countryside rolling in buggies and windmills.

2009 Turkey Drop
I don’t think my dilemma over the price of free range turkey is unique. We are all making this decision on a less complicated scale on a daily basis. There is much we must take on faith. We will make ourselves nuts if we insist on absolute certainty before we make a decision. There comes a moment when you have to just follow your heart, or your gut, or the coin toss.

Many times the media and our society and maybe personal experience teach us that you can’t trust anybody. I personally think the world is a little too scary when you no longer trust. I’d rather err on the side of being a sucker than a skeptic. There’s very little we can ever be sure about when it comes to choosing what to eat. It seems there is a scientific report or internet site that can promote or refute just about anything you come up with. So it comes down to learning all you can, trusting you instincts, experience, intuition, and maybe, your neighbors. I don’t know who runs the Butterball operation, but I do know my turkey’s grandma and she’s seems honest enough.


  1. I also went with the Amish mkt Free Range bird this year and was very had lots of white and dark meat, was very moist...even made a nice turkey soup with the carcass! Nice post!

  2. Thank you for this article, written about 5 yrs ago. I have the same questions and suspect the same as you, but will always go with the free-range (or really anything other than the store-bought buterball kind).

    1. Thanks for reading. It is that time of year and we still go for the crazy-expensive free-range bird. Last year, we finally beat the Germans with it, too! Slow, slow cooking in the oven with a pan of water to add moisture to the heat, plus a dry brine done 48 hours before. That was the secret. Good luck with yours!