Talking Turkey

Posted by James Collier on Nov 19, 2012
Filed: Farm Fresh
Tagged: diestel gobble gobble thanksgiving turkey

Confession time: I don't really like turkey. I mean, I like the animal, but not the meat. Unless it's deep fried, that is, but anything that's deep fried should taste good. Amiright?!

See, I've been burned too many times on a dried out, over-done carcass—even when cooked properly, the meat can still taste dry and chalky. Or so I thought.

Turns out I've been buying the wrong birds.

I used to pick them up from the bargain bin at Von's. I don't know if they still offer it, and I don't remember the exact promotion, but it was something to the effect of this: Spend $X on groceries, get a 15-pounder for $5, or a bigger bird for $7. One year, I bought three just to have 'em in the freezer.

Over the last couple of years, I've changed my meat-buying habits, opting more and more for humanely-raised and natually-fed meat. No more bargain bin turkeys, or pork, or...suffice it to say I now eat a lot less meat.

A year later, I can still tell you how much I paid for my first free range turkey, because I suffered severe sticker shock. It was a $52 Diestel bird I picked it up at Whole Foods—ten times what I had paid for a larger bird in years past! I wrestled with the decision.

Would anyone taste the difference? 
Is pasture raising or "range grown" really more humane? 
Would my friends and family care about the life this bird lived?

Eventually, I stopped talking to myself and just bought the damn bird.

This year, it'll be just me and my pup on Thanksgiving. I hadn't given turkey much thought, but Whole Foods reached out and invited me on a tour of Diestel's turkey ranch a few weeks back. I recognized the name, but didn't realize Diestel's operation is based in Sonora, just two hours north of Fresno; sometimes it's easy to assume the brands we see on the store shelves belong to large corporations, not smaller, family-run businesses in our own backyard. That's one of the interesting dynamics I find here in the valley—how mentally distant we are from our growers, despite our physical proximity.

For the tour, I joined a group of food writers, journalists and food industry professionals from around the country, many of whom had just visited Sanger for a similar tour of the Pitman family's farm. Whole Foods brought team members from all over, including their head of meat buying, based out of New York. The Diestel family greeted us with a private dinner (featuring an entree of turkey, of course), then showed us around the ranch the next morning.

Photos from the tour are below, but first, back to those questions I struggled with last year. Yes, there's a difference in how the turkey tastes—more pronounced, perhaps, than in other meats. The Diestel family attributes this to the way the birds are raised: slowly, so that the fat is marbled throughout the meat. Yes, range grown is more humane. I've seen commercial poultry operations, and suffice it so say they're not exactly visitor- or photo-friendly. I can't speak to whether or not others appreciate the difference, but my current circle of foodie friends tends to understand that quality often comes at a higher price, and that it's worth paying.

The men

The women

The dog (he helped us harvest eggs from the chickens)

Jason Diestel, talking about the birds

The feast (that's Tim Diestel at the grill)

You can find a wide selection of turkeys from Diestel at Whole Foods Market in Fig Garden Village. The Diestels also have several recipes on their website, including a simple tutorial for roasting, and they encourage (naturally) enjoying turkey year-round.

NOTE: Whole Foods Market in Fresno also carries birds from Mary's Turkeys (the Pitmans, mentioned above)—those tend to go fast!

Whatever you're cooking Thursday, happy Thanksgiving!