Turkey Tales

The COVID pandemic has affected everything else, so of course it will have an impact on Thanksgiving dinner. Family gatherings will be small, intimate affairs. Smaller gatherings mean less demand for twenty-four-pound turkeys. Supermarkets are ordering more small turkeys, more hens and fewer toms. Growers are slaughtering their birds earlier.

Does this mean distributors’ freezers will be filled with unsold twenty-pound birds? Taking the Wayback Machine to 1953, we see ten railroad cars filled with 260 tons of frozen turkeys the Swanson Company had not been able to sell by Thanksgiving. Refrigeration only worked when the cars were moving. The train rumbled back and forth between Swanson’s headquarters in Nebraska and the East Coast while executives figured out what to do.

The solution was to put slices of turkey on partitioned aluminum trays along with sweet potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Thus was born the TV Dinner. In the first full year of production, Swanson sold ten million frozen dinners, turkey, beef, chicken and others. The company’s timing was good; by 1954, sixty-four percent of American homes had television. (A decade later, it was ninety percent, in time for the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.)

If a frozen holiday dinner is not appealing, Williams-Sonoma is taking orders for Willie Bird free-range turkeys. Prices start at $139.95 plus shipping.

During my twenty years in Santa Rosa, planning a turkey feast usually included a short drive to the Willie Bird store. Willie Bird’s farm was in the hills behind the store. Family-owned for four generations, Willie Bird was woven into Sonoma County life. The county fair or farmer’s markets or most other outdoor events typically included Willie Bird’s barbecue, grilling drumsticks. Willie Bird’s restaurant was a mainstay in Santa Rosa for years.

Diestel Family Ranch, also in California, purchased Willie Bird this past summer. The new owner says the Willie Bird name will continue. The restaurant was sold last year and now operates as “The Bird.”

So Much Winning: Turkeys

If you liked the price you paid for your Thanksgiving turkey, the lowest in a decade, you’ll probably be happy with what you’ll likely pay for a Christmas/Solstice bird. Turkey prices are averaging $1.46 per pound, the cheapest since 2008. You can thank the current occupant of the White House.

Food prices, generally over the past couple years, have increased much more slowly than the general rate of inflation. Turkey prices in particular, have decreased. This is largely due to the lower price of feeding them. Remember those tariffs? (“Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”) In retaliation, the Chinese have stopped buying soybeans from the U.S., eliminating a major market. As a result, farmers are letting crops rot in their fields rather than pay to store surplus output. So turkeys are cheap…

… unless you want to eat turkey with some flavor, unlike ones that were raised in crowded enclosures, fed antibiotic-laced, genetically-modified soybeans, are so heavy-breasted they can’t support their own weight or mate naturally. If you enjoy so-called “heritage” birds, then you almost certainly are paying a record high price this year. The demand for free-range, naturally-raised heritage breeds is increasing so fast, if you didn’t order one ahead of the holidays, you may be out of luck.

Personal aside: In my two decades living in Sonoma County, I was fortunate to have Willie Bird free-range turkeys close by.