Yesterday, my little house smelled like a turkey cooking in the oven. This was nothing unusual for most people on Thanksgiving day, but what was strange for me was knowing that when the 20 pound animal cooking was done, I would be eating it. I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 15 years now, and Thanksgiving is one of the holidays that’s always been hardest for me. I can easily pass on many other meats. Ham at Easter, hot dogs and hamburgers on the Fourth of July. At Christmas, there are many more exciting things going on than the meal itself. But Thanksgiving is all about the meal, and for many folks, everything starts with the turkey.
Last year, my mother was kind enough to buy an “Amish” turkey at a local store, and I had a few bites. But this year I wanted a turkey whose provenance I could be sure of before I jumped back into the ritual feasting that Thanksgiving is. A couple of years ago I read Barbara Kingsolvers, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and did a lot of thinking about my vegetarianism. I don’t actually miss meat that much, so the temptation to eat only meat that’s local, as Kingsolver does, wasn’t that great. My partner bought a chicken from a friend at our local farmer’s market and fried it up when I briefly expressed a craving for fried chicken. But the fried chicken tasted nothing like my own memory of fried chicken, heavily influenced, I think, by Kentucky Fried Chicken. And I thought to myself, that was an interesting experiment but by and large confirmed that I’m largely still uninterested in meat. And then a friend on campus sent around an e-mail advertising her brother’s free range turkeys available for order for Thanksgiving. I was too late last year, but this year we got our order in early and eagerly anticipated our guilt-free, deliciously free-range turkey.
I live in a house with two meat-eaters, and so my husband diligently began to investigate the best methods for cooking a free-range turkey. We were urged to brine, as this would make the white meat more juicy. Turkeys you buy in the store are injected with fat to make them good and juicy, but obviously, free-range turkeys are not. We investigated glazing, and butterflying. We found out at the last minute that are 12-14 pound turkey would, in fact, be 20 pounds. The art of raising free-range turkeys within a certain poundage range is a bit less predictable than when they’re all packed together in cages. I went to pick up our big boy or girl (I discovered our turkey could be of either sex, though I’m uncertain as to why this was important for me to know) and then she/he sat outside in a cooler until the morning of Thanksgiving.
My husband did all the work of getting the bird in the pan and in the oven that morning, and so I didn’t get to see her or him in the raw. But the process of monitoring his or her progress was cooperative, and I remember the first moment when the smell of cooking turkey began wafting out of the oven and through our house. “Our house smells like turkey,” I thought. “This smells like Thanksgiving. My house smells like Thanksgiving and my parents are not here. I must be grown up.” It was a good smell, an adult smell, but a smell largely unfamiliar in our house.
There was much debate about temperature readings, and poking of the bird to see if its juice ran clear or not, and tugging on his or her legs to see how loose they were, another sign of done-ness. There was much concern with overcooking, but I was also very concerned with undercooking. The less cooked, the more like flesh. At one point we were taking temperatures in the thigh and the breast, and I had to try to imagine the connection between this carcass in my oven and a live turkey, standing and moving around. Thinking back, some part of me wishes I would have seen my turkey alive. He or she was alive as recently as Monday, and now on Thursday, I was going to eat her or him with my friends.
The finished bird looked, well, delicious, quite frankly. Brown and juicy and perfect. My husband carved it up, a very gendered division of labor, but I have no expertise in animal carcasses, so one I felt quite comfortable with. And then I could not resist the urge to reach in and grab a little morsel of white meat, my favorite kind of turkey meat.
It felt good and right in some strange way to be putting meat in my mouth. It suddenly felt like something some part of my body had been longing to do for a long time. But it also didn’t feel completely right. “This is turkey,” I thought. “It tastes like turkey. Turkey tastes good.” But really not as good at the idea of the turkey tasted in my head and in my memories.
I’ve had vegetarians in the past tell me that if you eat meat after not having done so for a very long time, it will make you sick. I doubt this. It would suggest that our digestive systems somehow lose the ability to digest meat, and evolutionarily speaking, that wouldn’t seem to be a very useful thing. People all over the world eat meat very rarely. Does it make them sick each time they do? Nonetheless, my digestive system was upset after my Thanksgiving feast. I attribute that to the incredible richness and fattiness of any normal Thanksgiving meal, and not to the turkey itself. And perhaps it was psychological, which is what I suspect happens to many vegetarians when they eat meat again after a long time. To be a content vegetarian, you have to create somehow a shift in your thinking in which meat is just no longer appealing. Some people are better at it than others. I was never real keen on meat to begin with, so it wasn’t very hard for me. But turkey is really more than just a meat, and especially at Thanksgiving. It’s family and community and ritual sacrifice, and that had always been hard for me. I think it was the communal aspect of Thanksgiving that made turkey so tempting. There we were all together, and turkey was being passed around, and I could not partake.
I feel good about the turkey we ate. He or she had a turkey life before being killed for my Thanksgiving. She or he wandered around a farm in Hancock County, Indiana, and was raised by my friend’s brother. His or her existence did not consume vast amount of fossil fuels and the bird traveled just an hour and a half from her or his farm to my house. I liked having a personal connection to the person who raised my turkey. I liked the vague sense of community it created. I liked cooking the turkey with my husband, figuring out how to make gravy and sharing the turkey with our friends. Today, I’ll probably make turkey tetrazzini with what’s left of our considerable bird.
But there is a part of me that seems to have just become a vegetarian and is not at all sure what to think about all of this. This morning, I watched my husband remove what meat was left from the carcass, and though I knew it was silly, I felt a little nauseous. When I smell my fingers, and they smell of turkey, there’s just something very weird and strange about it. I do not feel guilty about eating my turkey. But I have to admit it doesn’t feel completely right, either.
And what I glean from this is not that everyone should be a vegetarian, or that it was a mistake to eat a turkey for Thanksgiving. But rather that it’s good to be thoughtful about what we eat in general, and maybe especially where animals are concerned. Having not really participated so fully, ever, in the acquisition, planning and cooking of an animal made it a strange experience for me, and one that therefore inspired a great deal of thought and intentionality. And that is perhaps a lesson for all of us, turkey-eaters or not.