Birds to Live By
EcoFriendly Foods founder Bev Eggleston is making gobbling noises from the back of a truck, where he’s selling turkeys. Just in case that didn’t draw enough attention, he’s dressed in a giant turkey costume, too.
“I think my giblets are showing,” he shouts to the crowd that’s come to pick up their Thanksgiving birds at the Dupont Circle farmers market last Sunday.
He lifts up the top layer of his costume, revealing a fat-lady suit with a red sequined bikini bottom and pasties with tassels on top. He shakes his body around so the tassels twirl around his fake breasts.
“I’m not a genetically modified hen, OK? I’ve got heritage, and I can reproduce,” Eggleston says.
“I’m going to come back with some dollar bills,” yells one woman in the crowd.
“I’m afraid if he lifts up the back what we’re going to see,” says another.
Eggleston immediately turns around and backs up his tail feathers, then lifts up the top layer of the costume again. It’s a thong.
“I’ve got to get back to business,” Eggleston tells everyone. “This show business stuff is hard.”
The costume may just be for laughs, but it’s actually an appropriate metaphor for Eggleston’s operation in Moneta, Va.: He’s not afraid to bare it all. He wants people to know exactly how his local network of farmers raise the turkeys he sells—in pastures eating bugs and grass, which are supplemented by grains the farms also grow themselves. He’s also happy to explain how he butchers them one by one, by hand, at his own on-site Certified-Humane processing facility.
That’s why Eggleston’s turkeys are preferred by many of D.C.’s top chefs. Cork chef Rob Weland, DGS Delicatessen co-owner Nick Wiseman, and ThinkFoodGroup’s José Andrés all had turkeys reserved with EcoFriendly.
It’s not just chefs who flock to EcoFriendly’s birds and others like them, though. Everyday consumers are routinely trading supermarket Butterballs for local farmers market turkeys these days. “There’s a continued increased interest in buying local, whether it be free range or otherwise,” says David Smith, owner of Springfield Farm in Sparks, Md., which raises its free-range livestock without antibiotics or chemicals. “And there are more people doing what we do.”
He and Eggleston say they’ve seen more demand than they’re able to supply. In 2000, Smith raised just 25 turkeys. This year, the farm will sell about 800 to restaurants and individuals for Thanksgiving. He’s also selling out earlier. Smith starts taking orders on Aug. 1, and this year, all his turkeys were booked nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving.
In particular, Eggleston and Smith say, “heritage” turkeys are coming back into vogue. These birds are closer to what was served at the first Thanksgiving than the agribusiness poultry many of us grew up eating. Whereas the more common broad-breasted turkeys are selected generation after generation to produce plumper offspring with more white meat, the heritage turkeys breed naturally. They’re also pasture-raised with a diet that more closely resembles what their wild ancestors ate. Meanwhile, the broad-breasted variety have become so fat that they must be artificially inseminated in order to reproduce. They can’t run or fly, either.
Local farmers say you can taste the difference. Heritage birds have a firmer meat, more intense flavor, and a greater portion of dark meat. But the most obvious difference is size. Smith says a typical heritage turkey takes eight months to get 10 to 15 pounds—if you’re lucky. (Many are six to eight pounds.) A broad-breasted bird takes about half that time to get to that same weight—though it eats almost the same amount as a heritage.
That can make raising the heritage variety a hard sell for some farmers, even smaller local ones who pasture-raise their turkeys and believe in sustainable practices. For example, Robert Haskins of Haskins Family Farm in Middleton, Va., which sells at several area farmers markets, has raised heritage and broad-breasted turkeys, but now he just focuses on the broad-breasted ones. He says his customers want turkeys that are 14 to 18 pounds—bigger than most heritage birds grow. He adds that it’s difficult to manage the heritage birds because they can fly away.
The reality is that there really is no such thing as a “large” heritage turkey. This was a problem for Eggleston at the Dupont market, because his staff had been taking orders for varying sizes of heritage birds for weeks. “In the future, we’re not going to offer a large heritage,” Eggleston told his team. “If we end up having some larges, then people will be happy. But if they order large, and they only become medium, then people are disappointed.”
Consumers expect larger turkeys because that’s what they’re accustomed to seeing in the grocery stores. But commercial birds are typically genetically modified and given growth promoters and antibiotics to make them grow faster and larger. “I’ve heard stories of their legs breaking because they’re growing so fast,” says Colin Boggess, who works at EcoFriendly Foods.
Chances are you’ve heard horror stories about industrial poultry operations, too. For starters, the birds are raised in confinement, and while they may see sunlight, they’re not roaming around in it outdoors. The closed quarters can also pose other potential health risks if not carefully managed, particularly from the ammonia in the turkeys’ feces.
Processing is another consideration. Industrial slaughterhouses shackle and hang live poultry upside down, then carry them down an assembly line where a knife chops their heads off. A trough below collects the blood before the birds are dipped into vats of scalding water. Conversely, EcoFriendly picks up each animal individually and processes them by hand. Instead of hacking through the spinal column and the esophagus, they use a scalpel to sever just the jugular vein, which cuts off circulation to the brain and allows the animal to die quicker. Commercial operations use automated machinery to pull out the birds’ innards, and the stomach and bowels can break, which contaminate the bird. EcoFriendly, however, removes the insides by hand.
All these differences are reflected in the price. Eggleston sells his broad-breasted turkeys for $6 per pound and the heritage turkeys for $8 per pound. That means any heritage bird over 12.5 pounds will cost you at least $100. A few blocks away from the Dupont farmers market at Safeway, you can find turkeys for as little as $0.99 per pound.
“This is the real cost of food, not the superficially low price,” Eggleston says in his turkey suit. Then, in the middle of the farmers market, he breaks into a rap (listen here):
You might think the price is insane.
But it’s more than protein ’cause you’re paying for the infrastructure of another day.
We might look like more of the same
With the blood-stained hands burying animal remains.
Just call me cold killer, you say I feel no pain,
Just another cog in the food machine.
But hold up y’all, let me explain.
It ain’t what you think. It ain’t what it seems.
We’re talking about survival. We’re talking about the food chain.
Where food is produced at the grassroots.
And not by some corporate cowboy wearing snakeskin boots.
You can’t trust a man wearing $1,800 shoes.
’Cause we’re brand new players in a brand-new game.
’Cause we’re brand new players in a brand-new game.
After leaving the Dupont farmers market, I head to Safeway. No employee freestyles for me; in fact, there isn’t even anyone around to explain what labels like “fresh natural” or “premium” really mean (not much). One turkey has a QR code for recipes, tips, and rebate details—as well as a $5 mail-in rebate for a collector’s edition of the Disney/Pixar movie Brave. Another comes with a pop-up timer. All of them are wrapped in opaque plastic so you can’t actually see the bird. Unlike Eggleston, they don’t want to show you what’s under the costume.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery