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How to Have a Healthy, Ethical Thanksgiving

Columnist Mark Hay ruins, then saves, your problematic holiday feast.

Image via Flickr user TurkZilla

Last year, I made it excruciatingly clear to GOOD readers why I find it uncomfortable to celebrate Thanksgiving as we know it. Although not a totally misleading holiday (insomuch as there actually was a peaceful Thanksgiving feast in 1621, which we now commemorate), I find the whitewashed vision of Native American-colonial cooperation and peace that it promotes to be a reductive distraction from the deeper history of injustice into which the first Thanksgiving dinner is woven. Eager to enjoy holiday goodies and a gathering of friends or family, I choose to informally celebrate other notable anniversaries that fall on the same day instead. (This year, in case you’re wondering, I’m celebrating the release of Casablanca, the birth of the National Hockey League, and Mongolian Independence Day, all of which feel like greater contributions to human art, fraternity, and dignity than a knotty, centuries-old nosh.)

Unfortunately, what I didn’t get to acknowledge last year is that, while I love Casablanca-NHL-Mongolia Day (né Thanksgiving) food, the feast itself can be problematic in its own ways. The issues with tearing into a giant bird and a gluttonous array of sides have nothing to do with the history of the holiday itself. Instead it’s all about the way that the extravaganza inadvertently supports and reifies troubling systems of factory farming and bio-scarcity. That’s a problem common to most modern American meals. But on Thanksgiving especially, a time for general awareness and appreciation, it feels gnawingly ironic for the entire nation to engage in a communal act of culinary thoughtlessness—especially when we could use the opportunity for a symbolic show of our appreciation of the planet and our bodies by eating a still-delicious but more nutritious, ethical, and earth-friendly meal.

Wait, What’s Wrong With My Spread?

Well, mainly the turkey. Starting in the 1950s, an increasing demand for white meat led us to selectively breed birds and develop farming and processing techniques that have produced monstrosities. The Broad-Breasted White (or BBW), probably the only turkey most people have ever come across in stores (even most fresh, organic, kosher, and antibiotic-free turkeys are BBWs), can barely walk because their breasts are so big, cannot reproduce on their own, and reach maturity twice as fast as they should. Sometimes their organs are crushed under their own weight within a year. Pumped full of antibiotics when alive and stuffed into environmentally disastrous, highly mechanized, and cramped farms, these birds live nasty, short, and brutish lives. Then we inject their breasts with flavoring, preservatives, and water to make them seem large and less bland—all in the name of copious white meat that costs somewhere between $1 and $2 per pound. We eat a couple of hundred million of these things a year—48 million on Turkey Day alone.

Your sides and desserts are slightly less problematic. Potatoes, carrots, peas, onions, and all the other staples of a solid Thanksgiving meal are seasonally appropriate, often low-impact, and pretty easy to grow—not to mention fairly healthy even compared with other vegetable and tuber options. Yet many common types of fruits and vegetables we consume during the holidays are the product of factory farming, the detriments of which include environmental degradation and a severe blow to the biodiversity of once incredibly varied and thus naturally robust crops.

Usually stories of the woes of modern food culture are pretty bleak, if only because fixing your diet and your kitchen involves a lot of hard work. But in what I assume is a Casablanca-NHL-Mongolia Day miracle, it turns out that the alternatives to a traditional Thanksgiving meal are all simple, accessible, and probably more delicious than the original options. That means there’s no good reason we shouldn’t all try to make these tweaks this year:

Image by Curt Gibbs via Wikimedia Commons

Buy a Heritage Turkey

You’ve probably heard the term “heritage turkey” before, although there’s also a good chance that you’ve never heard it defined. That’s partially because there’s no specific legal standard for what can be sold as a heritage bird. But the conventional definition is that it’s one of about a dozen breeds that trace their lineage back to the oldest continuous domesticated turkeys in America—long before the rise of the BBW. Many companies try to pass off mixed-parentage birds as heritage birds, or otherwise dupe consumers into buying what is probably just a modified Butterball. But a true heritage bird (most of which were direly endangered just a couple of decades ago, before we started raising them for consumption again) comes from one clear lineage, with a name like Black Spanish, Narragansett, or Standard Bronze.

Heritage birds are notoriously costly, regularly selling for at least four times the price of a BBW. But a good part of that price goes toward the ethical necessities involved in raising these delicious birds. Raised in free-range environments, fed organically with both traditional feeds and wild foods, and taking twice as long to mature, heritage birds require twice the labor, much more overhead, and substantial investments to prevent illness and natural predators, especially when compared to factory-farmed BBWs. But the results are worth it: birds capable of living a natural three-to-five-year life span, and whose meat almost every reviewer agrees is substantially more delicious than the dry white cardboard you’re used to. They may have smaller breasts, but they have longer legs and bigger wings, darker and fattier meat, and infinitely more flavor complexity.

A good part of the cost of heritage turkeys has to do with the fact that we haven’t yet provided the demand as consumers to scale up their production. They’re relatively new on the popular radar, and so far only 20,000 to 30,000 are sold per year; in most states you can only buy them directly from suppliers, rather than finding them at grocery stores. Couple that with the superior flavor and greatly reduced ethical qualms of a heritage bird, and you have every reason to try to get your hands on one, despite the minor hassle. It’s the best vote of consumer confidence you can give to push us away from a sick culture of mass Frankenstein turkey farming. And it’s a lot lower-stress than other responsible eater options, like going out to a farm and slaughtering your own turkey to better understand the meat-to-table cycle.

Get Colorful With Your Vegetables

Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables—a guilt drilled into all of us throughout primary school and beyond. It’s a lurking sense of inadequacy that dogs me in every meal I ever eat. But here’s the really sad thing: Even when we do eat things that are not wheat, meat, or some unidentifiable glop, our habits are incredibly bland. Each year we eat, for instance, on average about 117 pounds of white potatoes (Idaho and Russet potatoes, high-starch, low-moisture varieties that hold dairy well, are especially common), but less than six pounds of brightly colored vegetables—the ones with a lot of powerful, beneficial nutrients within them. More generally, even when we eat leafy greens and vibrant vegetables, we tend to rely on mass cultivars—varieties of foods that are easy to grow in quantity, but that lack the flavor and often the nutritional value of their wildly diverse ancestors. Our overreliance on these common produce varieties winds up depriving our stores and tables of more diverse, robust, and beneficial crops.

The solution to this celebratory shortcoming is even simpler and easier than getting a heritage turkey: Just buy less common, more vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables this Thanksgiving. Take the potato, for instance, one of the heavy-duty hitters of the Thanksgiving table. We like to think Idaho and Russet potatoes are our only options—the only ones accessible and easily mashed. But darker-fleshed potatoes like Purple Vikings or Ruby Crescents are easily available in major supermarkets, promote greater crop diversity, pack more nutrients, and also mash fairly well when compared to other potatoes. And unlike the gap between BBWs and Standard Bronze turkeys, the price differential isn’t that stark at all.

It’s also worth making an effort to swap out common greens for more diverse and nutritious options. Instead of iceberg lettuce, try the darker romaine. Or better yet try some chard, beet greens, or even mustard greens to give your salads a new flavor profile while benefiting the biodiversity of the American farm and market through your demand (and helping your health).

Image by George Chernilevsky via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of Your Health…

This last note is a lot less about the biodiversity and ethicality of your Thanksgiving table and a lot more about making sure that your meal is as healthy as it is delicious. Thanksgiving is often an excuse to Paula Dean yourself into an early grave with way too much fat and butter. But there are many great foods on the table you can make into centerpieces from minor sides, to make sure that you do justice by your body as well as the earth.

First and foremost, sweet potatoes (which, for the last time, are not the same as yams!) often get buried under a mound of marshmallows or brown sugar. That’s kind of silly because they’re sweet to begin with—and actually one of the healthiest items on the table. With more nutrients and a lower glycemic index than a white potato, using them for a mash or in savory, rather than sweet, dishes will radically alter the balance of your meal. But on a less profound note, it’s worth keeping in mind that pumpkin is actually pretty healthy as well—at the very least it makes the healthiest pie option. So prioritizing it in your desserts over candied pecans (which, like all nuts, require an obscene amount of water to produce) is probably a good call. Other healthy feasting afterthoughts: It’s a good idea to lean more heavily on vegetables, whole grains, and fruits in your stuffing, and on natural juices and giblets over thickening agents in your gravy.

The Takeaway

Thanksgiving can be an ethical and health-related headache in large part because we gorge on the default store items. But it’s a lot easier today than it’s been for a couple of generations to mix things up at the table. Go diverse, go heritage or heirloom, go for the foods that often seem like afterthoughts and turn them into healthy centerpieces, and you’ll do a good amount to reduce the pressures of factory farming and increase pressures for farm and market biodiversity. Sure, it’s expensive, but it’s just one day—and a day on which we should be willing to spend a bit in the name of family, friends, and giving thanks in the broadest sense. It’s a symbolic day and expense as well: Even if as individuals we can’t radically change the ethics of our daily eating, if enough people signal on Thanksgiving that they want, say, a heritage bird, there will be impetus to re-evaluate a moribund and absurd market in BBWs. It’s a spark toward something larger. Consider that nudge to the needle of modern agro-business your responsibility on Thanksgiving, a day upon which we should be aware (in order to be thankful!) of the world around us, including its problems.

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