Turkey meat is so common today, whether it is sliced in a Neon Deli sandwich, or roasted and served with cranberry sauce on our family holiday table, it is hard to imagine it coming from an exotic animal. Wild Turkeys are native to northern New Mexico and the Eastern United States, and were hunted by native Americans as early as 1000 years ago. The Aztecs relied on them as a major source of meat and eggs, and are presumed to have been the first to domesticate them. Turkeys were introduced to England by William Strickland, who sailed as one of Sebastian Cabot's lieutenants to the New World almost 500 years ago. As was common during that time, the exotic bird was given the name of the exotic Ottoman Empire. In part this may have been confusion with the "turkish cock", which is a guinea fowl whose name also derived from the country which imported them from central Asia to Europe. Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed turkey for Christmas.
Almost 300 million turkeys are produced each year in the United States, and the average American consumes 17.5 pounds of turkey. Assuming that Connecticut residents eat at the same rate as the rest of the country, this means that about 3.5 million turkeys are consumed each year in Connecticut. Approximately 700,000 of our state's consumption will be on Thanksgiving Day, and another 300,000 for Christmas Dinner. Ironically, despite being native to New England, easy to raise (males reach 30 pounds in 18 weeks, consuming grain, produce, and bugs), and nearly ubiquitous on the plates and sandwiches of people of all parts of our state, a Connecticut turkey is nearly as exotic to Middletown residents as the first turkeys were to the King of England. The vast majority of these million holiday birds are raised on enormous poultry farms in North Carolina, Minnesota, Arkansas, and a few other states. 5,000 turkeys are raised in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. Thus, only 1 out of 200 Turkeys this holiday season will be locally produced.
Fortunately, locally produced turkeys are available. Although there are no farms raising turkeys for sale in Middlesex County, a number of farms are within 30 minutes drive of Middletown. George Purtill, of Old Maids Farms in South Glastonbury (1099 Tryon Street; 860-633-6601), told me that although he has sold all of his medium and large turkeys, he still has a few small hens available. Middletown resident Sally Ross, who has gotten birds from Purtill in previous years, says that the birds are raised outside, enjoying a very large fenced area. Purtill feeds them an organically raised diet of grain and vegetables, this time of year the remaining birds are fed winter squash and pumpkins. Ross appreciates being able to meet the farmer and his animals, seeing firsthand the dedication of a local farmer, and the respect and decent life he gives to the animals he raises.
A listing of farms selling Connecticut meat products is available through the Department of Agriculture. Although many of the farms are sold out of turkeys for this year, if you are in the market for a locally produced turkey this year, call around. Prices for a local turkey from a small farm range from $2.79 a pound up to $7.50 a pound, depending on whether it is organically raised and whether it is an heirloom or a standard breed. All the farmers I spoke to said that in general it is best to reserve a farm-raised turkey by Halloween at the latest.
A future Thanksgiving feast