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Commentary: The bird didn't sing, but it was the best ever

Jack Zaleski

WEST FAIRLEE, Vt. - I was charged with picking up the Thanksgiving turkey from a farm not far from my daughter's rural home in the hills east of Chelsea, Vt. She had made arrangements for a 20-pound, free-range, organic bird as part of her commitment to support local farmers. Fair enough, I thought, even if, as she warned, the turkey might cost "a little more" than the frozen versions on sale in area supermarkets.

A little more, she said.

The farm at the end of a muddy road was a beautiful place: rolling, still-green pastures bordered by hardwood and evergreen forest, fat angus cattle grazing in the November sunlight, well-kept barns, pens and fences. The young farmer did a double-take when he saw my North Dakota license plates, which was an opening for a discussion about differences between agriculture in Vermont and North Dakota, which are profound. Our talk revealed mutual bias and misunderstanding regarding those differences, but we didn't get into it too deeply. Then it was turkey time.

His walk-in cooler was stacked with wrapped, oven-ready birds. He lifted ours into the way-back of the SUV. We talked a little more about farming and weather, and then he said: "Let's see, that'll be $103."

Holding fast my North Dakota-nice poker face, I felt the wave of sticker shock rattle the disks in my spine, wobble my aging knees and (I feared) jar loose newly placed stents in my coronary arteries. I handed him $105, was tempted to say, "keep the change," thought better of it, and quickly pocketed the $2 return. "Beautiful bird," I said, as we shook hands. "Hope you enjoy it," he said with a smile. Sure, he smiled. He still had at least $2,000 worth of ready-to-go turkeys in the cooler.

Driving down the road, I calculated the "beautiful bird" cost slightly more than $5 a pound. What the hell? I mused aloud. Did he feed it gold dust? For that kind of money the damn thing ought to fly out of the oven onto the table and do a song-and-dance rendition of "Over the River and Through the Woods." It better be the best turkey ever, I grumbled.

It was. It really was.

Filled with savory sausage and bread stuffing, the bird emerged after five hours in the oven, perfectly browned and aromatic with its dressing of herbs and spices. I carved slices of white and dark that were as moist, tender and flavorful as any holiday turkey we've ever had—far superior to bargain birds from the freezer bin.

The results convinced me. Raised in the open, fed organically, and freshly prepared for roasting, turkey need not be the bland fare typical of mass commercial production.

Still, after dinner, while contemplating the skeletal shell of the meal's centerpiece, I couldn't shake the sense I was hearing an occasional snide and ghostly gobble-gobble. And I wondered, having paid $5 a pound: Who was the real turkey here ...?