A Vegetarian Raises Thanksgiving Dinner

Yes. I am a vegetarian and I am raising my family's Thanksgiving turkey. He's cute, quirky, creepishly smart, and in a few months he'll be a side dish. And you know what the really surprising part of all this is? I am perfectly okay with it.

I can already sense the repulsion from some of you and I completely understand. I will not attempt to invalidate your opinions either (mostly because I agree with them.) Also, I'm not here to urge other meatless people to do the same. As a fellow member of the Order of the Sacred Carrot, I get it. I've been a vegetarian for half a decade, and haven't slipped once in my five-year celibacy of food without nerve endings. But please, hear me out.

There's a very specific reason I'm doing this. A few actually, and all of them have been influenced by my qualms with the current state of animal agriculture - a monster of the modern world too few people can bring themselves to acknowledge (much less avoid). We'd much rather buy the plastic wrapped Styrofoam trays without accepting the truth that the contents feared death and knew pain. I find this distance from our dinner unnatural and immoral and I personally believe whatever it is in our minds that tells us a slab of sirloin is different than the doe-eyed steer at the petting zoo is ten times scarier than processing that cow in the first place.

Which is why I'm taking that process into my own backyard. This holiday I'll know all my dinner guests extremely well. I'll know what he ate, where he slept, and how he dealt with Six Feet Under being edited for cable. I'll know he lived a happy life on green grass in proper care. That he spent his short time here cage free under sunlight and the blue Vermont sky. That his death was quick and painless and carried out by an experienced butcher at a local organic turkey farm. I only wish all family meals could be so lucky.

Right now as I'm writing this, I can look out my kitchen window and see him scamper outside on the grass. He's nearly two months old and shares my small homestead with laying hens, working sled dogs, geese, a duck, and a new litter of cripplingly adorable angora rabbits. He walks freely about my menagerie with a languid jog - a tiny velociraptor on lithium. His white baby feathers are almost gone from his leathery pink neck. Sometimes when he wants to impress the hens he grew up with, he puffs up his pathetic teenage plumage, lifts his tail, and actually looks something like the turkeys from television and autumn candy wrappers. The hens aren't impressed. They walk away bored. His vulnerability is endearing.

This is not the life of most turkeys. Others birds that come from giant industrial "farms" live a miserable existence until they are large enough to be killed in bulk for cheap meat. Factory farming isn't the gem of progress. It's a disgusting and disrespectful fever-dream holocaust for the animals involved. That's why he's here and why I'm doing this.

I'm a contrary vegetarian. I am actually pretty set with this whole meat eating thing. It's how the system works and has worked for time out of mind. I don't mind you chomping into that hamburger anymore than I would if a bear ate you on your next vacation in the Smokies. Animals eat other animals. You and I are not above this. We can only choose to step aside from it as animals that have evolved beyond this particular necessity. For those of you who do just that, many sentient beings who can't type appreciate it. You're also not adding to the godawful business of factory farms.

Humans are the only animals that feel the need to eat whatever they want, as cheaply as they want, regardless of the consequences to the rest of the system. The perfect shitstorm of fast food, big profits, and cheap steaks has taken away the small farms of yore and replaced them with feedlots the size of football stadiums and chicken hutches the size of kitchen sinks. I'm not going to bathe us in the bloody details because that research is your responsibility. But even if you can't bring yourself to see the sows that can't stand up or the steers with hobbled legs waist deep in feces-understand this is not a pretty picture.

The reality is this fall nearly all American homes will eat creatures that lived horrible lives and they won't think about that reality for a second. A double threat to a supposedly progressing society. Ignoring suffering of anyone, even those you can get on club sandwiches, isn't progress. Nor should it be excusable in our pretty country. Americans should be too good for this. I beg you to be too good for this.

I never planned on any of this. It all happened by coincidence over Memorial Day weekend when I went to the local feed store to pick up my birds for the farm. For those of us getting small poultry orders, feed stores are the only way to go (most hatcheries will only ship directly to you if you order a twenty-five bird minimum.) The plan was to pick up twelve chicks and two goslings. But when I arrived at the store I saw a sign saying the hatchery had shipped extra birds by accident, and there were turkey poults for sale that had no farm to go to. A little enlightenment seeped into my brain. I made a decision right then and there in the cacophony of chips and the orange glow of the feed store heat lamps that I was taking home a turkey. I'd give it the best life I possibly could at Cold Antler, and then after a few months under my care, he'd be our Thanksgiving dinner. It was the kindest thing I could do for my personal situation.

The plain fact was come November my family was going to eat a turkey. I'm the lone vegetarian in a family of fervent carnivores (my grandfather was a butcher for Christ's sake.) They would not be swayed by flaccid Tofurkey or abstain from eating meat even if I cried and begged them not too (which I wouldn't, that's tacky.) Since they are eating a bird regardless of my preferences they had two choices. They could go to the supermarket and buy a turkey wrapped in plastic that lived in some concentration camp - or opt for something that lived naturally outside under sunlight. The decision was simple for most of us. Now I just have to convince my freaked-out sister that I'm not evil.

I'm sharing this story with you because there's a point I strongly want to drive home. The factory farm world is a sick and sad place to be if you're the commodity. It's an assembly line where living things are treated with the care and respect of used condoms. By raising my own turkey this summer I know one less meal is removed from that system. I am trying to do my part to stop this both as a future sustainable farmer and as someone invested in animal welfare. It's something.

You might not have the land or space to raise a bird of your own, but you can order an organically fed free-range tom from a local farm, and that truly is a contribution to a better world for all farm animals. You're doing more than you realize, and that's worth the extra ten bucks you would've spent on a Mojito.

Let's be honest, one less supermarket item at The Woginrich house isn't going to change the face of modern agriculture...but it may change the minds of a few people at the dinner table and isn't that where change starts? With our own lives, homes, and families? If the people sitting there can appreciate the fact that their dinner lived a happy organic life, perhaps they'll turn to their local farmers and free-range producers for tomorrow's meal. This is what I hope, and what my little backyard turkey will die for. The least we can do in return for his sacrifice is be grateful, which if I remember correctly, is what Thanksgiving is all about.