A Christmas Feast


“They will be glad to see you,” said David on the phone. I was not off visiting some distant relations to get it out of the way early in light of the rapidly approaching yuletide celebrations. No I was off to Termofeckin in County Louth to see how the fattening of turkeys for Ireland’s Christmas dinners was going.

The turkeys were both delighted and excited to see me as David McEvoy let them out of their large turkey barn. Five hundred black, bronze and white turkeys lashed up the field and completely surrounded me, as the grass disappeared below me in a mass of iridescent feathers. I was calm on the outside as they inched closer with great curiosity until they were close enough to peck at my bootstuds.

Wild turkeys originated in the US and Mexico and they have been around for about 10 million years. The Spaniards brought turkeys from the Americas to Europe and the first Christmas turkey may have been eaten in the late 16th century. It was not until after the Second World War that they were mass-produced for consumption at Christmas and became really popular in Ireland. Before this it was the goose that would have ended up on most people’s plate. Black turkeys are Norfolk blacks are originally from Mexico, whereas the American bronze is from the US. The more common domestic white turkeys have never been wild. In the 1960s when mass production was introduced, the milder white meat was en vogue and the darker meat was not so popular and the white turkeys were bred on a large scale. They also had more substantial breasts and their feathers wouldn’t get caught in plucking machines. Breasts are big in the turkey industry as the bigger they are the higher the meat content of the bird. White birds are also faster growers and thus are more suitable for mass production.  Nowadays, some people prefer the darker turkey meat with its more flavoursome gamey taste, but the whiter milder variety is still the more popular with Irish consumers.

Turkeys get a bad press and there are a lot of misconceptions about how intelligent they are. In the US, if you call someone a turkey it means they are pretty dense. The myth that turkey chicks are so stupid that when it starts raining they will look up into the sky and drown is not strictly true, as they don’t have protective feathers until they are 8 to 9 weeks old, and this makes them vulnerable when it is wet. They have acute hearing and can hear well before some sounds come into our own range of hearing. They are territorial birds and will defend their patch from infiltrating crows, rabbits, other poultry, and even passing airplanes. Although the domestic turkey is usually flightless, wild turkeys can fly at up to 55 mph and quite considerable distances. They are also good runners and can reach speeds of 25 mph. It is just their ability to run in the right direction away from danger that is often questioned.

Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of America, was a great admirer of turkeys and felt that you couldn’t find “a more respectable bird and a true original native of America”. If it weren’t for the bald eagle, they would probably have ended up as the national symbol. In contrast to Mr Franklin, the Native American Indians considered the turkey a bit of a coward and wouldn’t eat it, as they feared its “yellow belly” nature would rub off on them. In ancient Mexico, turkeys were considered sacred birds and were ritually sacrificed to appease the Gods.

Turkey farmers are quite fond of their turkeys and seem to make allowances for the bird’s rather strange features. Although the red fleshy wattles of the male are considered attractive by the female turkeys, they are not really their most becoming feature as far as I am concerned. The show of iridescent feathers of the brown and black male turkeys when they are trying to catch the eye of a female is impressive.

About three and a half million turkeys are eaten in Ireland every Christmas with a retail value of 60 million punts. Buying a free-range turkey will probably cost you up from £1.50 to £2.50/lb depending on the weight of the bird and where you buy them. A frozen supermarket turkey may cost as little as 50p/lb or even less if there is a special offer on.

Roast turkey filled with bread stuffing is the traditional way to cook your Christmas bird. The first astronauts that landed on the moon ate roast turkey before they ventured out on the lunar surface. An average Irish family will probably buy a turkey with an oven ready weight of 12 to 15 Ibs, so unless you are feeding an army there should be plenty leftover for at least a few days. On St. Stephen’s day, the sight of a mountain of turkey meat in the fridge may fill you with trepidation, but instead of cold turkey sandwiches you can always throw it in a casserole, a gumbo, or a curry and it will seem like something entirely different.

TV superstar Dustin would probably approve of the Termofeckin farm as the turkeys have a good quality of life. They get to run around a field for most of the day and they have a longer life than most other turkeys that are destined for the Christmas dinner. All of the McEvoy turkeys are hand plucked and are hung for at least a week, which maximises the bird’s flavour. They are the real “farm fresh” variety, as all the processing is done on the farm. David McCoy is pretty good at the sales patter, but he didn’t convince me to buy one of his turkeys, as I am a vegetarian. Assurances that the turkeys are also veggies fell on the deaf ears of someone who is determined to eat nut cutlets again and equally determined to like them this time.

© Conor Caffrey 2006

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