As a discerning American consumer, health-conscious baby boomer, and born-again foodie, I ask a great deal of the items I allow to grace my palate. Not for me (and not, I suspect, for you, dear reader) is the canned artichoke, the waxed apple, the frozen salmon fillet, or the shrink-wrapped sirloin pared from a steer that’s been fattened on hamster pellets and corn syrup. I believe you can taste the misfortune of such animals—along with antibiotics, hormones, and the after-shave of the farmer who raised them. So when I celebrate a holiday such as Thanksgiving, wherein the quality of the food and the quality of the experience cannot be separated, I am doubly exacting about my comestibles.
That my turkey must be an organic, free-range bird goes without saying. But having said it, I hasten to add that the phrase itself means nothing without clarification. When I say “organic,” I mean fed on grains whose fertilizer-, pesticide-, and herbicide-free provenance can be traced back at least 20 generations; grains whose genetics are documented in a scientifically thorough yet easy-to-read pamphlet, with said pamphlet printed on acid-free card stock and artfully tied to one of the drumsticks with a surgically sterile snippet of rustic butcher’s twine; grains that, when viewed from a distance in late-afternoon, call to mind the amber waves immortalized by Katharine Lee Bates, the spinster poetess who gave us “America the Beautiful” (So much less jingoistic and so much more singable than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” don’t you think?). And when I say “free-range,” I don’t mean “completely at liberty.” I’m referring to freedom with appropriate supervision. If my turkey were allowed to wander aimlessly, like some teenager at a mall, there’s no telling what he might get into. He might eat thistles, or drink puddle water. He might encounter barnyard riffraff as he gambols and frolics about the fruited plain. His essential purity—his juicy, wholesome, mouthwatering organicity—might be compromised. This is an unacceptable level of risk. I need a turkey that has come of age in a well-policed poultry Eden.
I will accept no turkey touched by medicines, stimulants, or chemical agents of any kind. I would consider a turkey that has received health care from a chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, or shaman, as long as all the paperwork is in order. On second thought, strike that. Nowhere near enough research has been done into the long-term effects of nontraditional treatment modalities on texture, aroma, and mouthfeel.
I insist that my turkey be prepared for his life’s denouement in a humane fashion. Naturally, this means he must not experience any pain or fear prior to and during the moment of his dispatch—partly because such emotions are negatively impactful to flavor and nutritive value, but also because, frankly, I am a nice guy. Not timid or wishy-washy, despite my occasional use of a French word or two. But nice, I like to think, in the manner of an Atticus Finch: wisely judicious, quietly brave, firm yet fair. This might be a good place to acknowledge that, as a younger and more impressionable person, I went through a period of moral torment—well, perhaps it would more accurately be termed moral dismay—in which I asked myself several times how a thinking person could consume the flesh of other living creatures. Suffice it to say, I now see the speciousness and self-indulgence of such reflections. I recently read a splendid article that declared the organic gourmand to be the philosophe engagÃ© of our time: a moral mover-and-shaker, a historical-paradigm breaker, an ecological populace waker. I couldn’t agree more.
All of this is by way of saying that I require a person with a spiritual affinity for poultry—a turkey whisperer, if you will—to take charge of my gobbler’s final days. To comfort, to befriend, to lend courage, to instill pride; to explain, for lack of a better word, the purpose of his brief yet sun-dappled life. Oh, I hear your chortling, but consider this: If you believe your cat has a personality and your dog has a soul, then surely a turkey must have, at the very least, an attitude toward the universe. I simply want it to be the right one.
As part of his absolute commitment to the sacrament of a classic American Thanksgiving, my turkey will, once cooked in my Aga stove according to my top-secret recipe, wield the power vested in his crispy skin and succulent breast meat to lead my extended family on the path of righteousness. Uncle Carl, for instance: None of us knows what to do with him. But the turkey, through the simple gloriousness of his stuffed and roasted presence, will weave into Carl’s sodden consciousness an oaky, mellow baritone voice, perhaps the voice of a once-loved scoutmaster, and it will say, A single glass of the Pouilly-FuissÃ©, my friend, and then nothing but coffee, and Carl will listen.
And as we gather in the dining room with the muffled sounds of the Cowboys-Jets game drifting in from the den, our thoughts will turn not to steroids and shredded ligaments, and certainly not to glum analogies between the life of a fighting pit bull and that of a typical NFL player, but rather to crisp autumn evenings and impossibly green floodlit fields and fresh-faced virtuous cheerleaders and strong young men whose bodies express nothing but the pure joy of play. Those of a certain age will also think of the football-loving Kennedys at Hyannis Port, and of a resemblance, often noted but never mentioned, between their classy, ebullient family and ours.
When we take our seats and our gazes fall upon the centerpiece—another sublime agglomeration of acorns, pinecones, faux cranberries, dwarf pumpkins, and Indian corn, all fused in place by Grandma Enid’s hot-glue gun—the images flitting through our minds will be of Squanto and the Plymouth Colony, not Wovoka and Wounded Knee. And when we fold our hands and bow our heads to pray, I will find the strength to overlook the fact that my children are using the posture of worship to covertly operate electronic devices: Priscilla sending a torrent of text messages to her creepy boyfriend, Miles slaughtering platoons of Vietcong on his Nintendo DS. Standing at the head of the table, I will close my eyes and let my spirit be borne aloft on the zephyrs, the holy visions, emanating from my perfect bird. Spacious skies! Alabaster cities! Patriot dreams! Majesties, purple and otherwise! As these unassailable ideals infuse my prayer, all of us at the table will understand how lucky we are to have been chosen to receive this feast, though it could be argued that only Priscilla really needs the calories.
I intend to purchase my turkey at Costco, by the way. Just because I have high standards and impeccable taste doesn’t mean I’m not a savvy shopper.
Now, about the yams….
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson wouldn’t know a free-range turkey if it pecked him in the giblets.