By Rachel Bosworth
November’s most popular bird is the topic of conversation for farmers and families as they prepare menus for Thanksgiving feasts. While grocery store turkeys are often available year-round, turkey poults, or chicks, arrive to East End farms in the summer months where they will spend their days at pasture. Now, family farms are making final preparations for what they say will be an unmatched, flavorful bird that will be at the center of the dinner table.
“On the pasture turkeys are in plenty of grass, and eat regular turkey feed, consuming on average four pounds of feed for every pound they gain” says Pete Ludlow, a fifth-generation farmer at Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton. Though his father, Art, who still operates the farm today, began the dairy aspect in 2002, turkeys have been an offering for decades. “We have been doing turkeys for Thanksgiving for nearly 50 years. My father started doing it when he was in high school.”
Thanksgiving turkeys are bred to gain weight, and can do so very quickly in the last few weeks before the holiday. While traditionally poults arrive on farms mid-July, getting them a little later has helped with keeping the size down as they could grow to be 40 pounds or more. This year, Ludlow says there will be some around 30 pounds. “We’ve gotten them later in years past because they’re tending to get bigger, almost too big,” he says. “But most people want to have a lot of leftovers anyway because how often do you go through the trouble of roasting a turkey?”
While the farm does not have any official cooking instructions, they advise against brining their turkeys since they are fresh and at the peak of juiciness and tenderness. Ludlow says poultry loses quality during the freezing process, unlike beef and pork, so opting for farm fresh will always get more flavorful results.
Raising turkeys is something Rich King says his farm started around 20 years ago just to see what would happen, and as a result, it became a big part of their business. North Sea Farms in Southampton welcomes customers with its unmistakable large green and white egg-shaped sign welcomes you to “a small farm with a little bit of everything.” King raises poultry and dairy cows, as well as grows a number of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. “We have a lot of the same people come every year,” he says of his Thanksgiving turkey customers. “A lot of people from Sag Harbor and East Hampton, and the city, too. There are a lot of repeats.”
Kings shares that a lot of people don’t really know how to cook a turkey, especially since it’s typically a once-a-year thing. Their directions are simple — oil the bird, tightly cover thighs and legs with foil, loosely cover the remaining bird, and take the foil off at the last hour to brown up. You cook the turkey at 15 minutes per pound at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. A general rule for ordering for families is one pound per person, two pounds if you want leftovers. “We tried frying a smaller bird one year just to see,” says King, but his family typically opts for the traditional cooking method. “There’s something about a fresh bird. It’s worth it.”
Turkeys raised on a pasture get more activity than those on conventional farms, which are often overcrowded. The extra activity results in a leaner bird. Holly Browder, farmer and owner of certified organic farm Browder’s Birds in Mattituck, explains cooking at a higher temperature and shorter time can result in a tougher meat.
“I recommend slow-roasting your turkey at lower temperature for several hours or overnight,” Browder says. “Initially roast at 450 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on size, to kill any harmful bacteria. Reduce your oven to 170 degrees and continue roasting for an hour per pound. If you slow-roast overnight then your oven is free Thanksgiving Day to heat up all of the sides!”
Store bought turkeys are lower in price than the local, organic, and pasteurized ones you may find on East End farms, but Browder says there is peace of mind of knowing free range turkeys lead a better life and that you will be supporting your neighbors for the holiday with a giving theme. “As the saying goes ‘shop local, to save local,’ so choose family farms over corporations.”
Mecox Bay Dairy (mecoxbaydairy.com; 631-537-0335) is located at 855 Mecox Road in Bridgehampton. North Sea Farms (631-283-0735) is located at 1060 Noyac Road in Southampton. Browders Birds (browdersbirds.com; 631-477-6523) is located at 4050 Sound Avenue in Mattituck.