Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Scrawny Bird

Pick a Little, Talk a Little, 2009

Last fall my wife decided that our Christmas turkey would be a free-range bird raised at a local family farm. My sister-in-law had bought some things from the farm, collard greens and bacon and such, and spoken highly of it.

The farm is located on the far side of our metropolitan area. They have a network of neighborhood representatives, though, who act as local pick-up spots for people wanting to buy stuff from the farm. We found one such representative nearby. In September my wife called and ordered a 30-pound bird, mailed off a deposit and sat back while out there in the country “our” bird grew into Christmas dinner.

I don’t know how it is where you live. Around here, at least, the locavore lifestyle must be justified on some basis other than cost. Free-range turkeys from local farms are far more expensive than store-bought birds. We tried to ignore this and focus instead on what we anticipated would be the fresh righteous taste of a local bird raised organically by a local family. The very thought was enough to warm our hearts through the chilly fall.

As the December pick-up day approached, we got a note from the farm announcing that all Christmas birds would have to be picked up at the farm. It was a wet and overcast day. We bundled up, threw a big cooler in the back of the car, as instructed, and took off for the country.

It’s about forty-five miles from where we live to the farm. The place itself is probably more what real estate people would call a “farmette.” There are half a dozen or so cleared acres in various states of casual homegrown cultivation. Field lines aren’t very straight, nor corners square. Here and there in the field were stray encampments of chickens or penned calves. There’s a makeshift barn/slaughter house and various ramshackle sheds. The free-range chickens have a large run and an old RV to sleep in. Up against the road is a plain brick ranch, the front yard of which had been turned into a muddy ad hoc parking lot.

Out under a tent in the back yard, the farm parents were handling the poultry and the cash register. Their children—I counted at least nine of them—were passing out cider and home made cookies, picking kale in the field, helping people carry the purchases to their cars and generally helping out. All of the children had jobs, no matter how young. Notwithstanding the clear plastic bags full of dead birds and guts, it was a sweet scene, like something off Walton’s Mountain. Every child had a job and every child was cheerful and polite.

The first thing I noticed about the turkeys was that they were all pretty scrawny looking. Seeing this makes you realize just how much moisture commercial turkey processors pump into their birds to plump them up.

The other thing is that this farm delivers its birds with their necks still on.

As coincidence would have it, our friend Anne, who lives in Paris, had posted on her Flickr page a picture of a Thanksgiving turkey she’d cooked there. In America, turkey necks are usually an ingredient in a basting fluid or something you use to make gravy. En France, it seems, turkeys are cooked and served avec cou.

My wife was initially taken aback at the sight of the neck. If you’ve gone more than fifty years without ever seeing one still attached to the turkey, it can catch you off guard since it looks like something that might appear in a poorly color balanced porn movie. Thinking it might add to the taste of the bird, though, she went ahead and roasted it in the French style, avec cou.

The Scrawny Birds, 2009

In retrospect, I don’t know that the turkey was all that good of an idea. I’ve never added up the full cost of this endeavor because I suspect it would only upset me.

And how was the much awaited bird, you ask? Under all those feathers it was so scrawny and disappointingly tasteless that we had to go to the store and buy another turkey breast so that there’d be enough to feed our Christmas guests.

This Christmas I expect we’ll be back eating factory turkey.


  1. OMG, that is hilarious! Great story. I was just talking to Joe about how upset I get, though, knowing that farmers are constantly feeding their livestock doses of antibiotics, to help fatten them, even though they aren't sick or anything. (not to mention steroids) It ultimately makes all of us, who are eating them, immune to the powers of antibiotics when we really need them. What are you gonna' do? Joe tells me we're going to die of something anyway, might as well eat good, fat chicken and enjoy it. I'm truly conflicted on this one. Haaaaa!

  2. This reminds me of our first wild Thanksgiving turkey. With the cost of the shotgun, ammunition, license, camo attire, calls, deep fryer and treatment for the bronchitis from sitting out in the cold drizzle all morning that bird probably cost about $75 a lb. I won't go into the plucking and cleaning of the bird.

  3. It takes an honest man, to write an honest blog! Brilliant story, Chris.

    Reminded me of one of my favorite lines in "Withnail and I": "Not the attitude I'd been given to expect from the H.E.Bates novel I'd read. I thought they'd all be out the back, drinking cider, discussing butter. Clearly a myth."