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Raising that turkey dinner from scratch

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Posted: Saturday, November 14, 2009 8:38 pm | Updated: 12:50 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA — With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I imagine most people are laying plans, making grocery lists and maybe even going to the store to find their turkey, while others put it all off until a last-minute rush.

Our Thanksgiving preparations started last March.

That’s when we decided to raise turkeys. Even though the baby birds don’t arrive until late April or May, in March we buy most of the supplies we need to last until the following winter. Hauling two or three tons of animal feed and groceries the six miles home from the runway by dog team and snow machine is much easier than doing it by boat, even when that means planning months in advance.

The baby turkeys arrived from the feed store in Fairbanks on May 24, with a few chicks for laying hens and meat birds. My sister Julie flew them home in our little Cessna 140, landing in the late morning. Eleven hours later, they arrived home after I managed to poke an outboard through and around large areas of decaying lake ice.

While the little peepers made themselves at home in a cardboard box near a sunny window, I began working in earnest on the garden. For the first few weeks Julie kept them warm with a hot water bottle at night, sometimes letting them scamper around on the floor on sunny afternoons. By hand-feeding crumbs, mosquitoes, dead flies and other delicacies, we tamed them so handling would be easier and less stressful.

By the time the weather warmed enough for the rapidly-growing turkeys and chicks to move into their outdoor pen, where they sprinted gleefully about in the dry leaves Julie had spread, I had the garden in. Pea seeds swelled in response to the moist soil, and seed potatoes saved from the previous year stretched new toes into dirt warmed by the early June sun and enriched by horse manure composted the previous year.

All summer long, Julie tended her fowl, offering tender chickweed salads and a buffet of table scraps in addition to free-choice grower feed. On laidback evenings, she turned them loose to graze on bugs and beetles and grass, and nip mosquitoes off her bare feet. When she called them back to the pen, they ran flapping across the lawn, converging on the door to follow her inside.

Soon the white turkeys towered above the chickens. Less flighty than the layers and more personable than the sluggish meat birds, the turkeys came first when called for a few raspberries, high bush cranberries, or ripe and then riper rose hips. By the time our seven-year-old nephew Richard visited in late July, they had grown big enough to intimidate a less bold child. In spite of their powerful beaks, the kid fed them crumbles by the handful. Although intrigued by our fowl, he understood and accepted that theirs would necessarily be a short life.

As Julie (and Richard) cared for the main course, I kept after the vegetarian side of dinner, hilling potatoes and weeding and watering (Richard helped) the garden. Pea vines shot up their fences in July, flowering and growing layer after leafy mottled-green layer of foliage until the supporting fencing threatened to keel over.

My sweet peas blooming at the end of each row would be long gone in November, but by late summer they offered a profuse and colorful bouquet, their heady fragrance luring unsuspecting souls into the jungle beyond. We often rode out to the cranberry patches, watching tiny pale pink-white blossoms spread across the dark greenery in June and form numerous tiny berries in July, only to see their growth arrested during the extended dry spells of late July and August.

Turkeys consume a huge amount of feed as they grow to roasting size. By late August Julie had put the grower chicks in the freezer, but the three 15-pound white birds with their long red wattles were downing most of a 50-pound bag a week, many times more than the sprightly little laying hens. With the $20 cost just to ship out each bag of feed there is no doubt that growing our own costs more than a store-bought turkey.

Butterball can’t match the quality of home-growth, however, neither in the taste, the texture, the hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat, nor in the quality of life of our birds. They might have been destined for a short life, but it was a carefree and happy one, whether the birds were lounging in the sun in their comfortable roofed pen or thundering goofily about the yard, leaving behind bits of organic fertilizer.

Our garden proliferated in August. Onions and celery, garlic and herbs for stuffing and other uses swelled fragrant and bursting with health. We picked and shelled pea pods by the 5-gallon bucket, putting pack after pack of blanched sweet peas into the freezer. Likewise my pumpkins in their raised beds grew (or not) and ripened (or didn’t).

Those who have not butchered a turkey might be surprised at the work involved. Done on a small scale, the job to kill, pluck (using pliers for more stubborn feathers), torch off any fuzz, gut, clean, wrap, weigh and label a turkey can take well over an hour. But with the birds in the freezer, our Thanksgiving meal was really taking shape.

By early September we finished the pea harvest. The rich orange pumpkins, root vegetables and other produce soon followed. A few limited patches of cranberries yielded a disappointing three or four gallons, but then in mid-October, following a neighbor’s tip, we found another patch. The late snow year allowed us to pick another gallon and a half in relative comfort despite freezing temperatures, and some of the overripe berries yielded several jars of zingy jam, most of it destined to be relish for our birds.

Often the last Thursday of November finds one of us sitting in a cramped trapline cabin or wall tent eating instant potatoes and a small tin can of chicken. The sister left at home might join neighbors for a traditional feast, albeit one often paid for more with grocery money than in six months’ time and labor. Once I celebrated at home by myself with a luscious roast ptarmigan, just right for one.

Sooner or later though, regardless of date, we will both end up at home for our own day of Thanksgiving, celebrating our wealth of food. We look forward to home-raised turkey, succulent and flavorful, alongside a large bowl of hot freshly-mashed potatoes. Of course the canned olives traveled thousands of miles to reach our table, along with the bread in the stuffing, butter on the potatoes, flour and milk in the gravy, and all of the pie crust ingredients and whipped canned milk topping — the whole pie except for the pumpkin and home-laid eggs.

It took an awful lot imported of turkey feed, too. But cranberry relish, garden peas fresh from the freezer, and homegrown pumpkin in the pie all contributed to the healthy, delicious freshness of a home-grown meal.

We are indeed thankful for our wealth and variety of locally-produced organic foods, a Thanksgiving dinner to be grateful for.

Not long after it’s gone, we’ll start preparing for the next one.

Miki Collins is a trapper who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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