Roast turkey has always had a pride of place on my family’s Christmas table. It has always been my mothers speciality and without fail she has always produced a mouthwatering main course. All these years it has never occurred to me to examine the curious custom of Christmas turkey.
Why turkey? The turkey is indigenous to the new world so could not have been the original European Christmas staple. Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” gives a clue. Scrooge sees the Cratchit family looking forward to a Christmas goose. Later when Scrooge repents he instructs young Cratchet to fetch a turkey. Most families would look forward to a Christmas goose until the turkey was introduced from the new world. This new bird was considered more luxurious and wealthy families would make sure it graced their tables. It is now the Christmas staple in the Anglo-Saxon culinary world. However this tasty tale has rather an unappetising side to it.
In the US today over 400 million turkeys are consumed each year. To service this demand industrial agriculture has bred a monster. Ninety nine percent of all these turkeys are from one breed, the Broad breasted white. This bird has been bred to fatten up quickly and as it’s name suggests, to possess enormous quantities of breast meat. These birds are slaughtered early. If they are allowed to reach a year old, their legs would collapse under their weight.
Barbara Kingsolver in her excellent “Animal, vegetable, miracle”, has this to say,”For turkeys, the scheme that gave them an extremely breast-heavy body and ultra-rapid growth has also left them with a combination of deformity and idiocy that renders them unable to have turkey sex. Poor turkeys.”
These animals are raised in conditions that make battery chickens look fortunate. Docility and stupidity have been bred into them.
Slow Food USA has been active in preserving the traditional heirloom turkey breeds which have been in danger of extinction. They have also encouraged the ethical farming of these turkeys.
In South Africa we seem to rely mostly on imported birds. I have not been paying attention to what breed they were or how they were raised until now. I fear they will be Large breasted whites and I can make a good guess as to their method of raising.
Until we can get a free range organic heirloom breed, maybe we should go back to goose, or maybe its time to buck tradition and have a meal that is more suited to us as Africans.