Gobble Gobble: Where Does My Thanksgiving Turkey Come From?

In a book that changed my understanding of food, Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Eating Animals), describes Thanksgiving:

Of the thousand-or-so meals we eat every year, Thanksgiving dinner is the one that we try most earnestly to get right. It holds the hope of being a good meal, whose ingredients, efforts, setting, and consuming are expressions of the best in us. More than any other meal, it is about good eating and good thinking.

I couldn’t agree more. Thanksgiving and Christmas are my two favourite celebrations of the year, and the turkey which sits as a prized dish at the centre of the table is a symbol of the annual ritual that brings all our loved ones together. Yet Foer’s depiction of our relationship to turkeys seems to speak otherwise:

And more than any other food, the Thanksgiving turkey embodies the paradoxes of  eating animals: what we do to living turkeys is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world.

Having researched and visited factory farms where he experienced the deplorable living conditions of these birds, Foer asks the simple question: Should we serve turkey at Thanksgiving?

I asked myself the same question when I first started becoming more conscious of the lives of animals on factory farms. According to the Turkey Farmers of Canada, last year alone Canadians consumed 142 million kg of turkey. Thanksgiving and Christmas apparently account for the two largest purchases of turkey. During last year’s Thanksgiving, 3.1 million whole turkeys were purchased by Canadians, equal to 35% of all whole turkeys that were sold over the year. That is a whole lot of turkey, and one can only imagine how these birds end up on our dinner plates.

In a factory farm, thousands of turkeys are housed together in a large space with barely any room to maneuver. They are debeaked i.e. their upper beaks are snipped off with machinery to prevent them, while being confined with thousands of others, from pecking at each other.  Foer describes a farm that he visited, where there were “tens of thousands of turkey chicks … huddled in groups, asleep beneath the heat lamps installed to replace the warmth their broody mothers would have provided.”

Instead of open pastures where turkeys can forage, the factory farm is characterized by “lights, feeders, fans, and heat lamps evenly spaced in a perfectly calibrated artificial day.” Food writer, Kristin Wartman, describes the living conditions of turkeys on these farms:

Industrially produced turkeys spend their first three weeks of life crammed into a brooder with hundreds of other birds. In the fourth week, turkey chicks are moved from the brooder to a giant window-less room with 10,000 other turkeys where bright lights shine 24 hours a day. With the lights constantly blaring, natural sleeping, eating, and fertility patterns are completely disrupted and the turkeys are, for the most part, kept awake and eating non-stop. Turkeys have an instinct to roost, or to clutch something when they sleep, but on the floor of a crowded room there is no such opportunity. If this is starting to sound like torture to you, you’re on the mark.

Like all animals, turkeys are sentient beings. They experience pain and pleasure. In a factory farm they undergo tremendous stress from having to survive in an overcrowded environment and where they are unable to live a free life.

After reading Eating Animals and watching documentaries like Food Inc. I felt the only recourse was to refrain from eating meat. Period. The only problem with that is (a) I LOVE meat and (b) I love turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Fortunately, there are farmers out there who value the lives of animals, and are committed to raising animals in an ethical manner. I started to seek out these individuals. I went to farmers markets, spoke to people, read blogs. One thing I’ve learned is that farmers sell more than what they bring to the market. Steve can sell vegetables at the market but raise sheep, turkeys and chickens that you can buy straight from his farm. So it’s a good idea to talk to farmers because there’s a lot more that they offer than what you see at their stands at the weekend market.

For the past few years I’ve been buying my turkey from local farmers who raise their turkeys in an open pasture, where they get to eat grubs, worms, grass and clover. These animals taste so much better. In factory farms, in the dark light or constant brightness turkeys are fed feed and because they don’t have much room to move around, or obtain natural light, they don’t grow properly. How can a bird living under these conditions ever taste good? How can it be healthy?

There’s always the issue of cost. I saw a Butterball turkey yesterday at the grocery store for $3.30/lb. I buy my turkey for $4.35/lb. The difference in price is not that substantial especially when I consider what I’m getting: a fresh, healthy animal that lived a happy life. Isn’t it worth it?

In a letter to his daughter in 1784 (an excerpt here), Benjamin Franklin questioned whether the bald eagle should serve as the national bird of the United States of America:

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…

I wonder what Franklin would think of how we treat the turkey today?

I wish you all a happy thanksgiving this year and for years to come. I also encourage you to think a little more about how valuable Thanksgiving is, and the meaning of appreciation we attach to this important day. Should we not do the same for the animals we eat?

Eating Local and Truly Organic Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune

The one concern I often hear about pursuing a local, truly organic diet is the high cost involved in consuming these foods. The truth is that eating pasture-raised meats and eggs and local produce doesn’t always have to cost an arm and a leg. With some creativity, innovation and thinking outside the box I’ve managed to keep our food budget down quite a lot.

Two years ago I would snicker at the suggestion of buying a cow. Why? How? It’s frozen! Where would I put all that meat? Then last year a few friends and I bought a quarter-cow from Dobson’s Grass Fed Beef. We received 152lbs of beef at a cost of $4.30/lb. The total cost of the order was $654.00. We each owed $218.00. The meat lasted us months.

A few weeks ago, a few of my friends and I purchased a whole cow which we split four ways. Our quarter order was $564.00. I then split the order with another friend, and my 1/8 share cost me $282.00. This is what I came home with:

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There are about 20 packs of ground beef, and enough stewing beef, pot roasts, steaks and soup bones to last our family months.

Creativity and thinking outside the box has allowed us to keep our food budget to $800.00 a month for a family of four (and often six with family staying with us during the week). Some tricks I’ve found helpful:

Mealplanning: ever go shopping on an empty stomach or with no clue what to make for dinner that week? I’ve been guilty of this bad habit and walked out the grocery store with food that only ended up in the garbage because it was wasted. Every week I plan what we’re eating for lunch and dinner and make a list of all the ingredients needed. Meal planning takes a bit of time, but we end up consuming less (just what we need) and, therefore, spend less.  It’s also helpful to write down our meal plan for the family to see. We painted a chalk board in the kitchen for the kids to scribble on. On top, I set out the weekly meal plan for everyone to read. That way, we’re all on the same page about what we’re eating for the week.

Growing our own food: what better way to save money than to grow your own food? Produce like tomatoes become very expensive in the winter (and taste pretty bland too) so growing my own tomatoes, green peppers and herbs in the summer has allowed us to save lots of money. I then freeze the tomatoes or make a huge pot of tomato sauce that I save for those cold January nights to make hearty beef stew. I have to admit that I haven’t had much luck this year with my yields so I’ve found a local farmer who supplies me with a bushel or two of very ripe tomatoes at a bargain cost. I’ve saved money this way.

Shop directly from the farmers: local markets are great. Not only do you have direct access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but you get to meet the people who grow them. Avoiding the middle man brings the cost of food down. Visiting the farm directly has saved us even more money. I spent a morning picking berries at Rideau Pines Farms and for only $15.00 we walked away with two pints of raspberries, black currants, snow peas, a head of broccoli and some other tasty vegetables.

Be creative in the kitchen: yes, I buy an expensive ($35.00) pork shoulder to make pulled pork. But I’ve made it last three meals. When I prepare an expensive cut of meat we eat it with other foods, like legumes and vegetables, that don’t cost a lot. That way our meals stretch over a few days. Thanks to the Internet and amazing food blogs, I’ve come up with recipes that are nourishing, delicious and easy on our budget. I remember the days of coming home after a long work week, not wanting to cook, and ordering take-out. It costs a fortune to feed a family, even once a week, on take-out. On those Fridays where we know we’ll be too tired to cook after work, it’s nice to just pull out a few steaks from the freezer and grill them when we get home. It’s still way cheaper than take-out, and also healthier.

Healthy and fresh food will always cost more. But the added benefits are priceless: health, balance, and longevity. I’m prepared to pay more to eat well because I truly appreciate that what we put into our bodies is more than just fuel. Food sustains us, it connects us, and it gives us life. With a little ingenuity and planning, eating good, wholesome local and organic food does not have to cost a fortune.

Berry Picking at Rideau Pines Farm

I’m thinking back to our cold and long winter months when any glimmer of summer would lift my spirits. A trip to the grocery store would sometimes give me a boost. What’s not to love about mangoes, strawberries and cantaloupe when it’s -40oC outside? Then it happened. I walked into my local grocery store one cold January evening and saw this:

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My first thought was that we’re in one of the coldest capitals in the world and someone is trying to recreate a tropical paradise for me. Great, except the longer I stared at this set up, the less I actually felt convinced by the dull lighting, the fake straw and leis that dangled around each sign. My frozen feet and fingers were still numb from the blistering wind outside.

I’ve become so accustomed to eating tropical fruit during winter. I’ve justified it with the idea that if I didn’t have access to the vitamins and other rich nutrients from these fruits, I’d have no other way to fill my diet. And my kids! How can they survive on legumes, squash and potatoes all winter long? My baby loves bananas and avocados, important first foods for growing babies.

On the other hand, I feel so disconnected from these foods. Where do they come from? How are they grown? I didn’t even know that pineapples grow from the ground until I read this book. I always thought they grew on trees. I’ve eaten pineapples my entire life, and I had no idea how they were grown.

What better way to connect to food than to pick it myself. So this past week, I packed up the kids and we headed out to Rideau Pines Farm near North Gower in search of raspberries. Strawberry season is coming to an end, but raspberries are plentiful. And, apparently, so are black currants. These are the things I’m learning about food, when they are in season, what they look like, and how they grow.

It was quite an experience walking through the farm fields lined with thick raspberry patches. My little one was mesmerized by how easy it was to just pluck the berries from the leaves and put them in her basket. We were surrounded by rows of fresh raspberries and black currants:

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Rideau Pines Farm was more than we expected. The Vandenbergs are so inviting and took the time to explain how their farm operates. They don’t use pesticides, but rather ash fertilizer. I have no idea what this means, but kinda like the idea of pesticide-free berries. Not only did we get to pick berries, but there are sugar snap peas for picking and all kinds of other goodness. Plus, you can pick up fresh garlic, kale, cauliflour and jams in the barn store where they are for sale.

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An added treat: the “village” that the Vandenbergs built. A wooden structure surrounded by trees which makes for a perfect spot to land a picnic.

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I’ve never picked my own food, except from my garden. It was an experience that I will treasure especially because I was able to share it with my daughter. At least she knows what a raspberry batch looks like, an asparagus plant, and cauliflower blooming in the ground. Hopefully this will give her an added appreciation for food and where it comes from.

She’s packin

Who would’ve thought July would bring such bounty. The last time I visited the local farmers market there was some variety of fruits and vegetables. Yesterday, there was a plethora of delicious goodness which wasn’t even a possibility a few weeks ago. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

The other night I overheard my daughter complain to her dad that she wants to bring her own lunch to summer camp. She’s never complained about the food, but suddenly she was “tired” of always having to eat “alphabet soup”. For someone who prefers to pack her own lunch, I couldn’t have been more pleased (although the real reason for wanting to bring her own lunch was to be like the big kids who pack their own lunches).

The down side: I hadn’t packed a kids’ lunch in years … since I myself was a kid. So as I grazed passed the different vendors yesterday I was amazed by how much selection I had to fill an entire week’s worth of lunches.

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This is some of the delicious goodness I picked up at the Ottawa Farmer’s Market yesterday at Brewer Park. My absolute favourite: pesticide and herbicide-free strawberries. A few years ago at the market I asked a vendor if he sold organic strawberries. “There’s no such thing as organic strawberries,” he scoffed because, according to him, all strawberries need to be sprayed with pesticides. Well, these ones didn’t, which means it is a possibility. And while they aren’t organic, I take comfort in the fact that they haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals (at least pesticides and herbicides). That’s particularly important to me since strawberries are a listed dirty dozen, alongside apples, grapes, celery and peaches.

Kids can be picky eaters and it can be hard to convince them to choose healthy snacks and lunches over those filled with salt, sugar and fat. So creativity is essential. Those fava beans! Well they’re actually seeds from Jack and the Beanstalk. The colourful stems from the Swiss chard were picked at the end of a rainbow. A little imagination, I’ve found, can go a long way in making my little muffin enjoy new foods.

Crazy Organic Mama

Crazy!

I’m crazy about three things: family, friends and food. And I’m crazy about food labels, what they say, and, quite frankly, what they don’t say. I just may be crazy for thinking that cows are happy. But I may not be crazy for thinking that cows raised on open pasture make for healthy animals. And healthy animals make for nutritious (and very delicious) food, and I’d like to think, healthy humans.

So I decided to blog about my crazy aka unconventional thoughts about food. How food is meant to connect us to each other, the animals and produce we eat, and the environment at large. I question everything about food, especially food labels, like why is it “free run” when the chickens may never have seen the light of day, how it is “made with real fruit”, when only a tablespoon of fruit juice has been added, and what exactly is an “access mom”?

I’m going to try to answer my own questions, and more importantly, try to see if I can connect to family, friends and food through a diet that is kind to animals, the planet and my budget.

Organic

Traditional agricultural practices that evoke images of the pastoral scene have been replaced by feedlots, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The irony is that the images of the happy cow grazing through the open meadows, the eggs freshly picked by old Macdonald, and the piglets blissfully feeding off the sows are portrayed as modern farm life. A television commercial selling eggs from the farm depicts the farm to fork process. We see the beautiful, spacious, barn, the eggs gently rolling off the conveyor belt, hand selected and inspected, and the farmer standing proud that he is feeding our nation’s families. But the protagonists, the chickens who lay the millions of eggs that are sold across this country every year, are completely absent from the scene. Are the egg producers concerned that consumers would be turned off by images of chickens in battery cages, debeaked and living in their own waste?

Indeed these images that were described in documentaries like Food Inc. has led many people to turn to “organic”, “free range”, “free run” thinking these “labels” are a sound alternative to the large-scale agriculture. Do these terms carry any substantial meaning? For instance, beef can be labelled “organic” when it is “grain-finished” i.e. the cow is fattened on grain before it is slaughtered. Yet cows are meant to digest grass. They are not ingrained to digest grains (pardon the pun, but I couldn’t resist), which may cause them all sorts of digestive problems. It’s almost counterintuitive to the whole concept of organic that we feed animals diets that are inconsistent with their anatomy.

Which has led me to the conclusion that while “organic” does pack some punch, I approach the concept with a grain of salt. I appreciate many things that come with the label “organic”: cannot be produced from genetic engineering, no use of synthetic pesticides, ionizing radiation or forms of irradiation are mostly prohibited, but I’ve had to dig deeper to truly appreciate the meaning of organic.

Enter the happy beef. The argument against pasture-raised farming is that it’s near impossible, too expensive and cannot cater to large-scale consumer demand for cheap meat. So it came to a surprise to me a few years ago when I came across a farmer who sells 100% grass-fed beef with the tag line, “our cows are on grass, not drugs”; something that is foreign to those who are only familiar with grain-fed “organic” beef. Yet, this farmer delivers on the best tasting, most succulent meat I have ever enjoyed. While many fine things in life come with a price, I’ve tried to reconcile the high price of pasture-raised beef with two trade-offs. First, I’ve had to reduce my meat consumption, or I’ve bought in bulk bringing the cost of my meat to less than the cost of conventional, grain-fed beef from the grocery store. Second, in the words of the infamous Joel Salatin, “if you think the price of organic food is expensive, have you priced cancer lately” basically sums it up for me.

For over three years I’ve served only pasture-raised meat to my family and learned a few things: it tastes better, it’s healthier, and if I plan well it’s not that much more expensive that what I used to buy at the grocery store.

Mama

I’m a mother to two amazing little people. When I started becoming more conscious about food I realized that what I put on my children’s plates is far more important that what I put on my plate. Not just because nutritious food helps children develop and grow, but because they have very limited control over what they eat.

So instead of watching soap operas every day, we became obsessed with cooking shows. Now we cook together, visit markets together, and experiment with new recipes together. My children love to eat. Almost anything.

I once walked into an Italian pizza joint in China town that was serving Indian food. And who says food can’t be imaginative? If I can have access to that kind of culinary variety in Ottawa, I can definitely have access to a wide range of wholesome, fresh local food. So for the next five months, I will visit a local farm in my region that is committed to truly sustainable agricultural practices, where the cows, pigs, yaks, elk, and chickens are happy and the pasture truly green. Because, as I have come to experience, there is nothing more refreshing than being on a first name basis with the man or woman who is responsible for helping to feed my family. It’s a connection that I want to cultivate for myself, and more importantly, for my children.