The slaughter has already occurred, and most of you are preparing to take part in the yearly American Turkey Feast, Thanksgiving. In recent years, many people have taken to considering paying more for 'free-range' or 'Organic' birds to replace the cheaper birds, believing that they are treated more humanely, or that they simply taste better.
I'm not trying to denounce Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving, both for it's culinary tradition as well as it's message of togetherness and sharing that it promotes among family and friends. This is, in my family, a particularly special Thanksgiving, as my mother has invited my in-laws over for dinner. It is, in many ways, one more symbolic step to the joining of our two families.
On the front of Turkey, it's a common question which asks why it has become the traditional food for Thanksgiving. A Computer Science Professor from the University of Waterloo in Canada, Daniel Berry, claims to have a Hebrew manuscript (titled Haggada Shel Hodaya, literally Telling of Thanksgiving) from a classified dig outside of Salem, MA which provides evidence of why this is. The guy raises some interesting points, but most of them are without any evidence (like Ben Franklin proposing Hebrew as the National Language), so my consideration of his scholarly paper is with the Bozo Bit prominently set, but it's still an interesting read.
The entire paper is based around two things: First, this manuscript he "isn't supposed to have", and the fact that the Hebrew word "Hodu" means both 'thank' and 'India'. Which is relevant because much of the world calls Turkey something which translates to "India Fowl" because Columbus believed strongly he'd landed in India. It's an interesting supposition, but as I said, there is so little evidence presented by Dr. Berry, that I can only really consider his paper as a curiosity.
I believe Turkey caught on because it's a large, hearty bird which is indigenous to North America. They were plentiful, and a single bird could feed a sizable number of people. In short, it had a lot going for it as the centerpiece of a harvest feast. Whatever the reason, we're stuck with it today, and I suspect we'll be eating the bird for a long time to come.
However you prepare the bird: fried, roasted, smoked, or baked, it's important to consider where your bird is coming from. Some people still hunt their own wild turkeys, which from what I understand can lead to an incredibly flavorful bird because it's had a far more active life. And wild turkeys can get just as big as commercial turkeys, though generally they do so over a dozen years instead of the few dozen weeks.
Which is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with all commercial turkeys, be they Free Range, Organic, or not. The birds have been bred to grow to enormous size, very quickly. They tend to be unhealthy (evidently it's not uncommon to lose 13% of a flock in the first eight weeks), but it's not considered terribly important due to their short lifespans.
Some people are going to be concerned with the practice of beak and toe severing, which is done to prevent the birds from pecking and slashing each other to death (at least partially a sign of the incredibly tight quarters in which these birds live), but also to ensure that their instinctive tendency to toss their food around isn't exercised. I will note that these practices are common at basically all levels of Commercial Turkey Farm, though I'm sure there are some that don't. It makes a lot of sense from a business perspective, and I don't claim to know about the long term effects regarding the bird's comfort, but some people are simply not going to be able to accept the practice.
The problem is that free-range, organic turkeys are still nearly four times as expensive as turkeys that don't make this claim, once they reach the store shelves. In some cases, these birds no doubt have a better life than their less-expensive brethren, but the USDA regulations are so open, that a Free-Range Turkey may not be more humane than any other.
Birds are omnivores. We have this iconic image of a robin feeding it's screaming chicks a worm from it's beak, but for some reason we feed most of our poultry destined for human consumption a strict vegetarian diet. Since the birds don't get all the nutrients their bodies are designed for, they can't convey those nutrients to us, and their own health is often put in jeopardy.
If you're concerned about buying a humane turkey, or a turkey that you feel is healthier for your own family (not to mention probably tastes better), do yourself a favor and buy from a local farmer. Consider the circumstances in which the bird was raised. Consider the age of the bird and what that tells of it's breeding. American's have developed this (frankly troubling) fear of their food. They don't want to know what it looked like when it was alive. They don't want to see it die (or kill it themselves). I suspect even many hunters would have trouble raising an animal with the intent of killing it.
A few months back, Catherine and I bought a copy of Meatpaper, a journal that considers the social aspect of meat consumption (and no, it's not anti-meat eating), rather than just the how. It's an interesting read, and one article stuck out in particular to me. A woman who had, for a long time been a vegetarian, who started eating meat again on a single condition: she only eats what she's raised.
If she doesn't know the animal, she won't eat it. She even does a fair amount of her own butchery. I don't expect most American's to go this far, but I think the lesson is important. We, as a people, need to be more socially responsible with our food. We should have greater ownership in the food supply, where it's coming from, how it's raised, and what that means for us in the long term.
I think Thanksgiving is a great place to start. If you haven't bought your bird yet, go find a local turkey farm that will sell to you directly. Check out the conditions in which your birds are raised and cared for. Maybe even pick out the bird you want from the flock, while it's still standing.
I'm being a little facetious, as most of us would have no way to do this, even if we were inclined. The point, however, is that if you're truly concerned with the health value and humane treatment of your turkey, don't just pay three dollars a pound for that 'organic' label. Odds are good it means a lot less than you think.
But if you can hunt a wild turkey, or find a heritage bird, raised on a good farm, it's almost certainly worth the extra hassle. In taste, health, and conscience if you're concerned with such things.