I embarked on a new personal challenge yesterday. I call it, “The Great Turkey Experiment”.
I brought home five adorable, three-week-old turkey chicks. Three of these chirping innocents are bronze turkeys, the kind that will grow up to look like the traditional birds featured in your average Thanksgiving décor. The other two are a less hefty breed of turkey that will grow up to be snow white with a more delicate physique. The personal challenge? I’ve got six months to work up the courage to eat them. If I can’t do it, I’m going to become a vegetarian. It’s the principal of the matter.
Ever since we bought farmland and embarked on this journey towards a self-sustaining lifestyle, my relationship with food and the environment has changed. Eating locally, choosing organic foodstuffs, and recycling is all the rage now, so naturally I’ve joined the ranks of all the other enlightened Americans who carry cloth bags to the supermarket to carry home pricey “certified organic” produce and “free range” chicken breasts. Must do my part to save the planet and embrace a healthier lifestyle like all other cool kids in class, don’t ya know.
I’ve even taken the commitment a step further by planting a large, diverse garden to provide fresh food for our meals. I can or freeze anything we don’t eat immediately, assuring we have organic, homegrown grown food all year. My larder is filled with jars of homemade salsa, pickles, jelly, applesauce, and tomato sauce, not to mention jugs of homegrown honey and wine. Add to that my thirty free-range chickens providing anywhere from one to two dozen eggs each day and you could say I’m making decent headway in the organic, eco-friendly lifestyle ideal. We eat locally grown food without so much as a gallon of gas devoted to the cause. How’s that for lowering your carbon-footprint?
The problem is, eating homegrown veggies and eggs is a good start, but it still avoids the most serious environmental and health hazard attached to our food processing systems today – industrial farming. My hobby farm interests have led me to environmentally conscientious reading material. I devour magazines such as Organic Gardening, Hobby Farms, and Mother Earth News and books such as the Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. These sources not only teach a reader how to successfully grow salad in the backyard, but increase awareness of the horrors of mass produced food, including those deemed “organic” or “free range”, sad to say.
So, inch-by-inch, I’ve waded deeper into the waters of self-sufficiency so I can verify the origins of my food and consume without guilt. My homegrown beans paved the way for homegrown eggs and honey. Next I bought half a cow and half a pig from a farmer friend. It was a poignant experience to watch the animals grazing lazily in the field knowing that six months later they would be resting in my freezer, but witnessing their natural existence, a life of fresh air, green grass, and a lifespan three times that of forcefully-fattened, factory raised animals alleviated any guilt I had about their impending demise. The grass fed, hormone-free meat provided us with months of guilt-free meals, though I admit I missed the classic perfection of cuts of beef packaged and designed to appeal to the picky consumer. Nevertheless, I cooked the local, organic meat ignoring its imperfection, with reverence and respect for the creatures whose lives were given to nourish my family. But my willingness to do so didn’t help me shake the memory of their doe-like eyes or the way the sun bounced off their soft fur coats, lulling them into a lazy afternoon nap. Without intending to, I started giving up red meat, turning my attention more and more to poultry and fish, creatures with less personality in my opinion.
Then I had the misfortune of pulling up behind a chicken truck. It was stacked with hundreds of wire cages; each filled with half a dozen chickens stuffed into the two-foot space allotted them. Most of the birds lacked feathers, which I knew was because chickens cannibalize each other when raised without ample space or diversions. They were despondent. Some actually looked dead. Faced with this tangible evidence of the plight of factory-farmed chickens I paused the next time I reached for a chicken nugget. Factory farmed chickens are fed chemical laced food to fight off disease, have a short six week lifespan, and the trip to slaughter house in a speeding truck where the cold air steals their breath may be the only natural sunshine they ever witness. Every time I buy chicken from the grocery store, or order it in a restaurant, I’m supporting this barbaric system, and suddenly grilled cheese or Tuna sandwiches are all that’s left on my idea of a moral menu. Even buying “free range” doesn’t guarantee the creatures live a natural life, because these birds also live in crowded conditions and all a company need do is provide an 8 by 8 concrete pad for them to step outside on for perhaps an hour a day to qualify as “free range”. Labels can be misleading.
My chickens at home live full, pleasurable lives, but still it’s easier for me to buy Purdue chickens, neatly packaged and trimmed up for consumption, than to consider the alternative. I just can’t imagine myself being the instrument of any animal’s demise, which is why I have laying chickens, rather than broilers-fryers at home. Eggs are a perfect excuse for not slaughtering chickens, don’t ya know.
But more and more often, I’m experiencing mixed feelings over my willingness to support industrial farm practices because it is “convenient” to do so. I should just become a vegetarian, and I would, if only I didn’t happen to like eating meat so much. So how do I balance my ethics regarding what I consume?
When you raise a goat, hog or cow, you can load it in a trailer, take it to the butcher and pick it up later wrapped up in neat, white paper. If you don’t want to raise the beast yourself, you can always find someone willing to sell you half a steer around here, and knowing the animal lived a life of dignity makes eating it seem less barbaric. Unfortunately, there’s no such service for poultry. It just wouldn’t be cost efficient or practical to cart a bird to someone else to dress, so eating homegrown poultry involves raising, killing, blanching and plucking the beast yourself. Frankly, that pushes my inner farm-girl beyond the limits of what’s comfortable or fun – afterall, taking up poultry slaughtering would be difficult on my perfectly polished, acrylic nails, not to mention that it will no doubt give me nightmares.
But eating in this hypocritical way continues to haunt me. The fact is, a creature dies every time we order a chicken potpie, and trying to remain distanced from that reality is like sprinkling Novocain on your dinner instead of salt. I think an important part of the human experience involves being fully aware and conscious of our choices and how they impact the world at large. Choosing to distance ourselves from our food sources is ignorance in its most offensive form.
So, after two seasons of thinking about it, and months of questioning my own mettle, I’ve presented myself with the great Turkey Challenge. I’m told turkeys are stupid, smelly beasts and it’s unlikely I’ll grow fond of them. That said, when the time comes, I’ll should be ready and able to shout “Off with their heads!” like the Queen of Hearts. And yet . . . they sure are cute, shy creatures now, peeping away in their cage with absolute innocence, so I wonder . . . will I’ll end up with five turkey pets for years to come?
Least you get the impression that I’m planning to begin a lifetime campaign of raising all my own food and slaughtering every future holiday meal in my backyard, let me assure you that while it would be admirable, becoming a serious farmer isn’t my long-term plan. I can’t see devoting a good chunk of my life to the manual labor of beheading and plucking poultry, even if I’m willing and able. But I do want to see if I can do it once, as a way of exploring the origins of my food sources. Raising and slaughtering a bird, being instrumental to its life and death, will alter how, when, where and if I purchase certain foods forevermore. Somehow I feel being a part of the process from start to finish will earn me the right to eat poultry. If I can’t stomach carving my Thanksgiving turkey because I am all too aware that he was once a creature that fluffed his feathers and looked up when I said good morning with a bucket of feed, than I shouldn’t be eating turkey anyway. I’ll become a vegetarian, and in that way, live true to my newly clarified ideals.
Call me crazy, but I need more than an academic understanding of what life is all about – I want to explore the human experience firsthand, without avoiding anything considered “unpleasant” because clinging to blissful ignorance is more comfortable. People have ventured so far from nature’s original design in their rush to embrace the neat, pre-packaged, commercial world that I sometimes wonder if we’ve all become too lost to ever find our way back to what is natural and real.
So, in six months, I’ll either slaughter my first (and perhaps only) turkey . . . or I won’t. What you are willing to do theoretically and what you will do in reality is often worlds apart. But I’m not going to pass judgment about what is right or wrong regarding human consumption until I’ve experienced firsthand what the issue entails. So in the interest of testing my environmental and ethical ideals, I’ve set up the great Turkey Experiment.
You, lucky reader, can start placing your bets.