Take a good look at that bird you’re about to slice today.
Maybe not. But it should.
In the race for top billing among America’s most-consumed meat and poultry products, the venerable turkey still trots far behind chicken, beef and pork. But turkey’s made some great strides in recent years, and it’s no thanks to Thanksgiving Day.
The ugly duckling of the protein parade isn’t just for holidays anymore. A combination of savvy marketing and growing consumer demand for lean, low-fat protein products have turned turkey into everyday food that often arrives at our plate in a gallery of gastronomic disguise.
Think turkey sausage, ground turkey, turkey cutlets and the oxymoronic “turkey ham.”
“Research indicates that the market for turkey expanded most significantly in the late 1980s,” according to Norma Farrell, a spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation in Washington, D.C.
“The excessive amount of fat in the American diet was under review and it was an easy comparison to note that turkey was a great protein containing smaller amounts of fat than other proteins.”
Turkey Inc. probably wishes it came up with “the other white meat” campaign before the pig farmers shook off pork’s reputation as an also-ran in the battle for the American palate. But it’s trying. The industry now proclaims turkey “the perfect protein” to remind consumers that it’s healthful and low in artery-clogging fats, the kind so often linked to heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death.
The average American now eats more than 16 pounds of turkey a year. The NTF says the figure has more than doubled since 1970, but back then half of all the turkey consumed in the U.S. disappeared from plates on just three days of the year, Christmas, Easter and, of course, Thanksgiving Day.
While Thanksgiving no longer accounts for as big a slice of the overall consumption pie – about 31 percent – it’s a much bigger pie.
Turkey production increased nearly 110 percent in the last 40 years or so to meet the increased consumer demand for everyday turkey, ballooning into a $16 billion a year industry.
But Thanksgiving is still turkey’s single-biggest day of the year.
Peggy Albertson, also from the NTF, says the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dinner was a turkey for 88 percent of American households last year. The figure has held just about steady after peaking out several years ago.
“We’re not expecting any change,” she says.
At the Locust Leaf Farm in Foster, one of a handful of farms in Rhode Island where, for a price, Thanksgiving purists can get a fresh bird, the demand is stronger than ever.
“We raise 60 a year but we could easily triple that without advertising,” says Julie Boyce, who runs the farm with her family. “The last three years I’d say we’ve probably had calls for 250 turkeys. I can’t cater to ‘em. I’ve had to refer them out of town.”
Boyce says she doesn’t know what’s getting more popular, turkeys in general or fresh, farm-raised turkeys. The locavore movement has pumped up demand for all sorts of produce, meat and poultry products the consumer knows aren’t shipped in from some anonymous mega-farm or processing plant halfway across the country.
People might not necessarily be buying more turkeys, but looking for more trustworthy sources, she says.
Unlike some farms that fatten already-mature turkeys for a few months before the holiday, Locust Leaf raises turkeys from the time they’re youngsters, known as poults. People drive hundreds of miles to buy them and pay six to seven times what they would pay for a frozen turkey in one of the national chain groceries, says Boyce. That would be about $3.75 a pound.
In other words, the average-size turkey from Locust Leaf — a 19-pounder, say — would run in the neighborhood of $70. But people keep coming back for them, which is the only way to get one. The farm refuses to ship them frozen because doing so would hurt the quality.
Still, the birds end up in all sorts of far-flung places.
“We know people drive them all over the place, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine,” she says. “It’s just the taste. We raise them all-natural.”
Theoretically, Locust Leaf could raise more turkeys on the seven-acre farm off the Hartford Pike, but not without crowding the birds, which is another thing it won’t do. Boyce says one of the reasons the birds taste so good is because they grow up happy in “open air coops.”
As iconic a meal as turkey with all the fixin’s might be on Thanksgiving Day, it’s not for everybody. “It’s gamey. It’s greasy. I just don’t like it.” said a former restaurateur from the area who declined to be identified.
Yes, Wayne “Topper” Wood, manager of family-owned Park ‘n’ Shop in Blackstone, Mass., knows the turkey detractors are out there perusing the aisles. For them, he stocks up on what seem to be the two biggest alternatives to the tradition-laden turkey for the Thanksgiving Day meal, ham and prime rib.
But that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“It’s kind of un-American not to eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” he quips. “Isn’t it?”