When my son was six, I helped chaperone his class’s pre-Thanksgiving field trip to a turkey farm In Williston, Vermont. The trip didn’t turn out quite the way his teacher had hoped. The birds were crowded wattle to wing in an indoor pen, shuffling and shuddering, the cacophony of their collective gobbling loud and alarming. It came in waves. It was clear the birds were upset and setting each other off. Many of their normally red wattles were blue – a sign of anxiety, the farmer calmly explained. His baseball cap had a picture of a hand giving a one-finger salute. It was easy to imagine that the birds’ distress was directly related to his plans for their near future. But it’s more likely they were upset by the presence of 30 jostling, noisy first-graders.
It’s enough to make me never eat meat again, I thought as we hurried the kids out of there. Except it wasn’t. Just a few days later I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of my family and blithely tucked into my turkey. And I have continued to tuck into turkeys – and chickens and lambs and cows and pigs.
But maybe not as blithely.
We used to serve it for dinner seven nights a week and buy any cut that looked good and was affordable. First we stopped eating veal, and then we started searching out other meats from animals that had been raised humanely. At the time we were still living in Vermont, where our neighborhood grocer carried lots of stuff from local suppliers touting free range/organic/fair trade/sustainable/heirloom/insert-your-pc-food-catchword credentials. So finding foods that assuaged our consciences was easy.
Less easy was paying for them, which meant we ate meat less often. Which I considered a good thing.
Then we moved to Rhode Island. Three years ago, when we arrived, there were two Whole Foods stores within a fifteen-minute drive of our house. Today there are three, plus a Trader Joe’s. These national chains pedal lots of groceries with groovy credentials. But kind treatment of livestock isn’t among them.
Not surprisingly, Rhode Island also doesn’t have nearly as many farms as Vermont. But the number is growing (in fact, last year Rhode Island’s farm roster has grown more quickly than 48 other states’). And in the short time we’ve been here, there has also been a boom in farmer’s markets.
We like knowing how our meat was raised and buying it directly from the folks who raised it. But market schedules don’t always jive with ours. And even without the middleman, purchasing happy meat retail is still pricey.
This fall, we faced a choice. I leaned towards going meatless – or nearly meatless. David proposed a different approach: buy a freezer chest and find a happy-meat farmer to fill it.
Now I’ve got a freezer in my basement filled with 100 pounds of dead cow. It’s happy dead cow. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a cow comes from spending its days grazing on grass in a Vermont pasture. I picked the meat up last week – three cardboard boxes – from a woman in Coventry, Rhode Island, who’d picked it up the day before from Corinth, Vermont, where she owns a farm and rents it to tenants who raise, slaughter and butcher angus cows.
On Sunday David and I drove to Jamestown, Rhode Island, to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey. It’s a happy Thanksgiving turkey. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a turkey comes from spending its days pecking at bugs in an open pasture on a narrow strip of land with Narragansett Bay sparkling to the east and the west.
Would it be better not to eat animals at all? Probably. But this is where we are this year. And when I sit down to our turkey dinner on Thursday, I’ll know the turkey I’m tucking into didn’t spend its days wattle to wing in a hysterical mob. That’s something to be thankful for.