My mother-in-law is cooking Thanksgiving, and I think she’s probably going to get a grocery-store turkey injected with weird saline and chemicals. How can I steer her towards something more sustainable/natural?
— Happy Turkey or No Turkey
Dear Happy Turkey,
Choosing a turkey in the 1600s was simple: There were different breeds, but only one type—farm-raised and organically fed. These days, sourcing a turkey is a complicated decision that often speaks to your class, age, education, and politics. You can get a mass-market fowl, such as Butterball; spring for a pricier organic option; or pay big bucks for a heritage turkey.
However, if you are the guest, and not the host, this decision is not yours to make. When you’re invited to dinner, you should not dictate what ingredients your host should use or how those ingredients should be prepared (I deal with the exceptions to this rule here). And at Thanksgiving, it’s particularly important not to mess with your host’s menu, because people may have a strong sentimental attachment to things being done a certain way. This can mean having canned cranberry sauce that still retains the shape of the can, or a factory-reared turkey with lots of fluffy white breast meat.
Of course, I can understand why this turkey might revolt you. It leads a life of unnatural suffering, is pumped full of chemicals, and the end product has as much taste as a wad of Kleenex. Marianne Reimers, co-owner of Black Walnut Woolens, a small Oregon farm that raises heritage turkeys, says that she is no longer capable of eating a mass-market turkey. “It’s like this white, pasty, fake meat.”
But you should understand that your mother-in-law may be equally grossed out by your preferred bird. Reimers says that even though she and her husband produce what many consider to be top-of-the-line turkeys, hand-fed since birth, her mother-in-law says the gamy taste of heritage birds reminds her of “the horrible old mutton they were forced to eat during the war years.”
Furthermore, while you may feel morally outraged by a Butterball, others may feel a similar outrage over the cost of the alternative. Mass-market turkeys can cost as little as a dollar a pound. A heritage turkey can cost seven times as much. And be fussier to prepare. Heritage turkeys are best soaked in brine for two days in advance, says Reimers, which means going to the hassle of finding space in an overcrowded fridge.
So if you can’t insist on the type of turkey you want, can you at least refuse to eat the industrial meat? It is tempting to declare yourself an “ethical carnivore,” but this will make you look like an elitist food snob. So do what anybody does when confronted with a dish they abhor: Choke down a few bites, then fill up on sides.