By Dale Liesch, Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes
Can you truly say it’s Thanksgiving if you haven’t had turkey? Though some vegans could probably debate the point, for the vast majority of Americans, the answer is “no.” Even though turkey likely wasn’t on the table at the first Thanksgiving feast, the flightless bird has been synonymous with the holiday since at least 1856.
When designers were creating an official presidential seal for a young United States, the turkey found an early admirer in founding father Benjamin Franklin — not for its scrumptiousness, but for its “respectability and morality,” especially compared to the bald eagle, which Franklin saw as “lazy.”
“For truth the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America,” Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter. “He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
Today, the National Turkey Federation estimates more than 46 million turkeys are eaten every year at Thanksgiving in the U.S. Locally, Daron Mosley, whose family opened Mosley’s Meat Market in 1979, expects to sell around 6,000.
“We sell them fresh, and we sell them smoked,” Mosley told Lagniappe last week. “We can [smoke] about 130 at one time.”
Mosley said several people and businesses buy smoked turkeys as gifts for family, friends or employees each year. However, he said the majority of his sales at Thanksgiving come from fresh turkeys sold for traditional baking, which he feels most of his customers prefer
Bates Turkey Farm
For years, Mosley’s has gotten fresh turkeys from Bates Turkey Farm, which is about two hours up Interstate 65 in Logan. The farm’s longtime manager “Mr. Bill” Bates died in 2013; Mosley said he used to visit “Mr. Bill’ and the Bates farm almost every year.
“He used to say, ‘eat turkey, feel perky,’ when actually the opposite is true,” Mosley joked with a customer in Mobile. “But I don’t know why we don’t really eat it more than once a year.”
Bates grew up raising turkeys and knew “everything there was to know about them,” according to his granddaughter Cheri Weekley. He didn’t start the farm, but under his leadership the business grew, she said.
The farm, which hatched in 1923 when Bill Bates’ parents were given six turkey eggs as a wedding gift, has been synonymous with Thanksgiving in Alabama for decades. So much so that every turkey pardoned by an Alabama governor in the last 67 years has come from Bates Turkey Farm, Weekley said.
A wall in the main office of the farm is dedicated to the tradition, with photos commemorating many of the pardons, the oldest of which shows Gov. John Patterson saving a lucky bird in 1959. The latest photo shows Gov. Bob Riley doing the honor in 2005. Gov. Robert Bentley pardoned the latest turkey in the middle of November, Weekley said, but the photo hasn’t been framed yet.
All the turkeys hatched at Bates are raised free-range in pecan orchards spanning 1,500 acres, Weekley said. There are currently about 4,000 turkeys on the farm.
“They have all the creature comforts they need,” she said. “Shade, water and food.”
Bates used to tell family members not to eat the pecans in front of the turkeys so they wouldn’t learn they are edible, Weekley said. He didn’t want them to spoil their appetites for corn by eating pecans.
Raising the turkeys in a free-range environment has two benefits. It is better for the birds, and it also prevents illness from spreading as quickly as it would if the birds were caged in poultry houses in close proximity to one another, Weekley said.
“If you keep them locked up like that they aren’t as healthy,” she said. “Healthy, happy birds have room to roam, and sunshine.”
Coyotes are the biggest threat to the free-range population, but the loss generated by a coyote has nowhere near the impact of an illness. Employees at the farm use occasional blasts from a “boom” cannon to scare off coyotes, Weekley said.
Most of the turkeys on the farm hatch in August and grow for four months. The birds are inspected daily for health and to make sure they have enough food and water. Workers also check every morning for loss.
The busiest time for sales at the farm is obviously Thanksgiving and Christmas, Weekley said. The farm also does a decent amount of business in the summer from visitors ordering a turkey on their way to the beach, she said.
The farm mostly sells to individuals or distributors, but shipping has been a challenge. The farm is also developing an e-commerce side of the business to help reach more consumers. The farm’s restaurant in Greenville, Bates House of Turkey, is also a landmark on I-65 and a final destination for many of the Alabama-raised birds.
“The restaurant keeps us going all year,” she said.
While the turkey’s place at the center of the Thanksgiving table remains unchallenged, the traditional baked turkey has had to make room for some new techniques, especially as more Americans have become brave enough to try frying an entire bird.
When Alec Naman, owner of Naman’s Catering, fries a turkey, he prepares it with a Southern kick — injected with a blend of “cayenne pepper, garlic, ground mustard, onion powder, salt, pepper, hot sauce, lemon juice and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.
“It’s fast, but it’s going to cost a little more because of the oil, and of course the propane and your little pot and basket,” Naman said. “So, you’ve got a real investment, but you can still cook a whole turkey in about an hour.”
He recommends using a turkey no larger than 15 pounds when frying to ensure the exterior doesn’t overcook. According to Naman, the same size rule — 15 pounds or less — should be followed when roasting a turkey as well. It’s also important to make sure the turkey is kept off the bottom of the roasting pan, which Naman said allows it to roast evenly on all sides.
“If you don’t have a little rack, put stuff like carrots, celery and onions under there. Leave em’ big — throw the whole stalk in, use whole carrots, cut onions in quarters and just let the turkey sit on that,” Naman added. “Put a little water in there, too, and around every hour you’re roasting, add a bit more water to keep it moist and get those flavors to rise up and penetrate the turkey.”
In a 425 F. oven, Naman says, the roasting process takes 3-4 hours. He also recommends rubbing a blend of dry seasonings along the outside of the turkey as well as underneath the skin of the breast. Such a spice rub might include “basil, oregano, garlic, lemon pepper and poultry seasoning,” though substitutions are allowed.
Smoking a turkey requires a bit more time. On a low temperature, it can take up to 10 hours, depending on its size. When using this method, Naman says, two things are important: keeping the heat low and slow — around 225 F. — and using the right wood chips.
“You can use a variety of different chips to get some flavor going — mesquite, hickory, oak or applewood is really good,” Naman said. “If I can’t find applewood, I like to put a little bottle of apple juice down in the turkey and let the juice evaporate into the smoke.”
When it comes to tradition, though, Naman agrees with Mosley’s customers that a baked turkey is the obvious choice. The key difference between baking and roasting, according to Naman, is that a baked turkey should “definitely be sitting in some kind of stock.”
However, what makes a “traditional Thanksgiving turkey” can vary even among those who bake. A good bit of that schism comes from the stuffing — or the dressing — depending on who’s cooking.
Seeing stuffing baked inside a turkey is not as common in the South as “dressing” — a similar substance consisting of mostly of cornbread and chicken fat that’s cooked in a separate baking dish far away from the main entree’s unmentionables.
“You want to be sure to wash the cavity out really good to get all the crud out, but there’s multiple kinds of stuffings you can use,” Naman said. “There’s rice and meat stuffing, where you take rice, ground beef and maybe some onions and throw in there. Then there’s your basic cornbread stuffing, which you can also do with sausage and breading.”
There may be more than one way to stuff a turkey, but according to Naman, not stuffing one at all is a missed opportunity, even if there’s no plan to eat it.
“You can always stuff it with things like celery, onions, carrots, bell peppers, orange slices, apples or whatever, and you can do that kind of non-edible stuffing if you’re baking or roasting,” Naman said. “You let those things cook and let them items break down, then the moisture comes out and you get those flavors all throughout the turkey.”
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