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Thanksgiving Turkey Dilemma…. Guest Blogger – Don Harker

November 23, 2011

Regardless of whatever is going on with the turkey in any particular year, we gather at our place or Don Jr.s. The cooking is always left to the father and son on all holidays. An earlier Thanksgiving at Don and Colleen's.

After having spending 20 years of my life living in Britain and other far off places, returning to the USA was a bit like Rip Van Winkle awakening from his 20 year sleep.  As a youth of the 50’s, my ear was assaulted by the repetitious use of the old Beatnik exclamation of ‘cool’.  Cool, it now seems, is the all purpose exclamation of delectation.  It will cover delight with anything ranging from Beethoven’s 8th to garish athletic shoes.

The transformation of what I used to know as food has taken an even greater leap.  With Thanksgiving about to rear its head, I was aghast to find that certain of the basic principles I had learned while a science student have been altered in favor of the big agribusiness factory producers of poultry.  Just prior to last Thanksgiving Day I went out in search of a ‘fresh’ turkey.  To me, a fresh turkey was one that had not been frozen.  I was happy to see many supermarkets and meat specialty stores advertising fresh turkeys.  But, lo and behold, when I went to look at some of those so-called fresh turkeys, I found them to be quite solid or full of ice crystals.  When I inquired of the butchers, I was told that, indeed, these were ‘fresh’ turkeys.

All captions and photos by Gail. Waiting for the turkey to cook......... there is always beautifully prepared and colorful food waiting for us.

The reason for all of this, we are told, is to get produce to consumers at reasonable prices and in good condition.  Anybody out there noticed lower prices?  In fact, what the big producers have managed to do is to squeeze out all of the small local producers (Guess what? – Local farmers could get fresh produce to our tables because it didn’t have to be shipped 2,000 miles).  With predatory pricing policies and changes in what the USDA will allow to be called fresh, they have pushed out all of the small producers who could not compete on price.  Have you tried to find a local turkey producer?  Last year in my search for a fresh turkey with no apparent local poultry farmers available (my family thought I was becoming obsessive/compulsive), I called the agricultural feed stores in my area to find out who might be buying turkey feed.  This turned up a Boy Scout fund raising project where the scouts were raising turkeys to make a few bucks.  I managed to collar the last turkey they had to sell – cost me nearly $3.00 a pound, and a round trip of 100 miles.  Yes, the turkey was good!

Something to suit everybody.

Why all the insistence on that fresh-fresh bird?  Have you ever noticed how water seems to surround the packaging of all poultry these days, especially when you defrost a frozen one?  Yes, they do use a lot of water in processing poultry – its a bit like a car wash with whirring brushes and scalding water to remove feathers, etc.  But, that’s not where most of the so-called water comes from.  Any of you who have taken high school biology will know that all animal cells are filled with liquid.  As we all should know, when liquid freezes it expands.  In fact, it expands so much that resulting ice crystals rupture the cell walls letting out all of the liquid.  Where does the liquid go?  Most of it probably goes down your kitchen sink with the rest of it saturating the fibers of the flesh.  With a great percentage of the cell fluid gone, it’s no wonder we end up with dry turkey flesh after it has been roasted.  All of the freezing factors effect all of the frozen meat products we buy.  Frozen products are cheaper because they have a very long shelf life, they are not subject to seasonal buying, and, hence, little waste for the producer and retailer.

still waiting for the turkey to cook......

Another of the apocryphal tales spun by the poultry producers is that for our own protection they must scald the bird in order to reduce the threat of salmonella.  I always love it when some one tells me they are doing me a favor by taking away my rights or ruining my food.  The fact is, salmonella loves a warm, moist, environment. The turkey/chicken car wash leaves the skin with one of those conditions … moisture.  Salmonella reproduces very rapidly at body temperature (about 96° to 98° F.)  Salmonella bugs do not reproduce at low refrigerated temperatures and they are killed at high cooking temperatures.  The cooler the environment the slower they reproduce. Keeping your poultry refrigerated at 34° F. until ready to cook, plus proper handling and cooking, will almost guarantee no significant populations of salmonella.  Anyone who has lived on a farm where chickens are prepared for the odd meal will know that the birds have a rather dry skin.  That skin is covered with a cuticle with which we are all blessed, and meant to keep out intrusive bugs and germs.  This is summarily removed in the chicken/turkey car wash environment.  All that is actually needed is for the bird to have a good wipe with a damp cloth to remove dust and litter.  If you really feel threatened, you could moisten the cloth in a dilute mixture of water and household bleach.

It smells very good......Everybody seems happy despite the turkey saga we endure each year.

Water is the enemy of any dry-roasted meat product, because water has a tendency to toughen muscle fibers.  Whether you are dry roasting chicken, turkey, or other kinds of meat, water should never be used.  All that water released from ruptured cells of previously frozen product will toughen the fibers of whatever you may be roasting.  The exception to dry roasting is for the tougher cuts of meat which require long, moist, cooking temperatures to soften the fibers.  The previously frozen bird is guaranteed to be tougher and drier than any fresh-fresh bird.  When it comes to roasting your turkey, several methods are currently in vogue.  The term roasting originally meant placing your meat on a spit in front of glowing coals.  With this method, all humidity evaporated into the air.  Then, ovens were invented.  The oven is basically a big cooking pot.  All of the humidity that normally escapes into the air is captured in the oven creating a humid cooking environment (water).  An innovation that has recently come into currency is to roast the bird at very high oven temperatures (400° to 450° F.).  This will drive off much of the usual humidity giving us a bird that is much more like a true roasted bird.  French chefs, for eons, have always roasted chickens at very high oven temperatures (375° to 400° F.).

Don Jr. tends the turkey. The turkey has special care throughout the procedure that is somewhat like a religious ceremony...

My friends always ask me how I get such a nicely browned, crisp-skinned, roasted chicken – the French knew how!  Of course, this hot oven method does not lend itself to stuffed birds.  The high temperatures overcook the outer carcass of the bird before sufficient heat has permeated the stuffing.  If you must stuff your bird, you are locked into cooking it at the usual temperature of about 325° F.  The fresh-fresh bird will, however, still produce a moister, more flavorful product.

What are we do about this bureaucracy laden dilemma?  Unless any of you are prepared to raise a nationwide boycott of so-called fresh poultry, the big moneyed interests will control USDA regulations.  There doesn’t seem to me to be any great difference in the fresh/frozen bird and the one that has been deep frozen.  If we all refuse to buy the higher priced so-called fresh birds, and instead opt to buy the cheaper deep frozen birds, maybe that would send a message.  Another alternative is to call all the local farmers you know to see if they might have raised a few turkeys for their own and friends use, to see if they might have a spare for sale.  But, at least, put out the message that if they were to raise a few turkeys for next year, you and I would be on their list of buyers.


Table is set, many people are waiting to sit down and eat. Now for the next discussion about the TASTE of the bird.......

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ann Rogers permalink
    November 24, 2011 4:29 am

    Your meal looks delicious and so full of color. We are able to get fresh, organic, free run turkeys here – at a cost, but so, so yummy. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. November 26, 2011 5:23 am

    Funny Gail!! And I feel your pain Don I really do ;-). Looks like Don Jr. has learned well from the old man.

    PS..could you send me some of your brownies….I miss them.

  3. November 28, 2011 6:36 pm


    Alas, there are very few local turkey producers in Washington and Oregon, but I think there is one in Anacortes – not sure of the name.

    Other farmers raise a handful. For next year, put a call into BB Ranch in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and Don Jr. can pick one up there. BB Ranch sells local meat and they did have both local turkeys and heritage turkeys for sale. They sold out quickly.

    The Island Grown Farmers Coop in Bow has fresh, local meat, and is open on the weekend might be another place to look.

    Your turkey looks wonderful!

  4. November 27, 2013 12:56 am

    Reblogged this on Gail Harker Center for Creative Arts.

  5. November 27, 2013 6:20 pm

    Mouthwatering pictures and dreams of fresh turkeys. When I visited a working hacienda in Peru, the owner said: “Poor turkeys, their time is so short.” And of course they were raising fresh ones. Whishing you all and happy Thanksgiving!

  6. November 24, 2014 10:02 am

    Reblogged this on Don2's blog and commented:
    This year I’m making chestnut stuffing for the turkey again. There are some tips for it in another of my blogs. Don

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