With only a few shopping days be fore holiday feasting, it's time to talk turkey. There are certainly a lot more options to choose from when you're considering what goes on the platter: free range, organic, pastured, heritage.
Though these account for less than 1 per cent of the 300 million turkeys sold across North America during solstice/Kwanzaa/Christmas/ Hanukkah celebrations, these emerging alternatives indicate the complex economic, nutritional, ethical, enviro, cultural and taste choices that are starting to be made as eaters ask more questions about where their food comes from.
But while organic is top of mind for most people, there's a whole school of eco-agriculturalists now arguing that this shouldn't necessarily be first choice.
What's called the "traditional Christmas turkey" was invented less than 60 years ago. The Broad Breasted Bronze and Large White made it big in the North American barn scene of the 1950s, their genetics manipulated to satisfy consumer obsession with huge white breasts. These also served industrial-scale farm needs for a bird that put on weight fast and thereby improved turnover time and cash flow.
Until then, the heritage breeds had stayed relatively true to the wild turkey that had roamed American forests and to the near-wild turkeys offered as takeout gifts to European explorers of the 1500s.
The new turkey of the 1950s, by contrast, was a tribute to artificial insemination. A white-breast-meat robot with short legs and a small breastbone, the new turkey could barely stand or walk, never mind turkey trot or manage the intricate balancing act of mating.
By the 1990s, this product of unnatural selection and intelligent design for disability had displaced all but a few of the nine standard breeds, which had boasted such names as Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Beltsville Small White and White Holland.
But now these rare breeds are being nursed back, thanks largely to the Slow Food movement, whose members believe that name brands and speed of weight-gain don't count for as much as place names and variety.
U.S. Slow Fooders promote direct sales of these recovering breeds on their websites, as do activist chefs like Dan Barber, creative director of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York state.
So there's bad blood in the turkey world, where good breeding matters over and above differences about feed or treatment of the turkeys.
Feeding has its own set of issues and choices. Fast weight-gain and fatty flesh in turkeys are achieved the same way as with other animals, including humans: keep them inactive and feed them lots of high-density carbs.
That's why industrial farmers moved all their livestock including their mobility-challenged turkeys off the land and into the barn, where grains were brought to their troughs. Grazing, after all, burns calories, and grasses themselves are low-cal.
These moves cut the growing time and life expectancy of turkeys raised for food from about eight down to three months. To speed that up even more, a conventional producer might use a bag of tricks that includes antibiotics, which also rev weight-gain.
Organic turkey producers are strictly regulated by certifiers and are not permitted to use any such tricks. They also provide organic grains as feed an expensive proposition. But turkeys, we have to realize, did not evolve to eat grains. And organic farmers may well keep their turkeys in the barn much of the time.
Much the same goes for free-range turkeys, which are not kept confined or caged but may be fed conventionally grown grains and may spend most of their time indoors, wandering around the barn playing turkey in the straw.
What's shaping up as the new gold standard for meat is grass-fed, a "species-appropriate diet," according to Jo Robinson, author of Pasture Perfect and leading champion of the new trend. Livestock that feed on grass, Robinson and other authorities argue, produce eggs, milk and meat richer in vitamins A and E, omega-3 and other heart-smart fats.
A pure grass diet is an option for cows, sheep and other ruminants that evolved as herbivores. However, this isn't on for poultry, which evolved as omnivores. While at home on the range pecking at a salad bar of greens and berries, turkeys also relish protein-rich bugs and worms.
The pastured and grass-fed claims aren't as closely regulated as organic. But many hope such a label will develop soon, stipulating that the birds spent their time outside enjoying the splendor of the grass, and didn't eat grain.
Pasture probably sets the benchmark for the environment, and such U.S. groups as the Sierra Club and Worldwatch treat it as premium. And the enviro ethics are good the animals feed themselves rather than relying on tractors to bring their grain, and they eat food that humans can't, which isn't the case when animals eat several pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat.
The carbon cycle is good, since perennial grasses store lots of carbon in their root mass.
Same goes for the nitrogen cycle, since the poop is spread over a vast area and doesn't build up and leach into waterways.
The tradition of binging on meat during the solstice probably dates to pre-industrial times, when farming people couldn't see the logic of feeding hard-won grains to livestock when it got too snowy for the animals to eat free grass outside. The slaughter of animals that couldn't look after themselves happened just in time for fall and winter celebrations.
The taste of organic and grass-fed turkey is a subjective matter, but boosters say the meat is juicier if cooked slowly on lower heat, and has deeper and more complex flavours and texture. Labels on most conventional turkeys identify taste "enhancers," which some take as an admission that it's the chemicals, not the meat, that whet the appetite.
To find out about turkey options, check out websites for the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, Eat Wild and the Eat Well Guide.