Since the Plymouth Pilgrims and Wamapanoag delegates sat down to that politically motivated harvest feast in 1621, Thanksgiving's icons and focus have ranged from pious Puritans and autumn crops to big, fat turkeys and a plethora of starches. Fast-forward through the centuries to my family, where the main thrust seems to be achieving a bloated belly, which is then backlit by the light of televised football.

The inflated supermarket 30-pounders that defrost in my mom's fridge every year are probably injected with an array of scary hormones, steroids, and antibiotics, and probably lived motionless lives in tight-fitting cages. This week, health and animal-cruelty concerns aside, I conducted a turkey taste test, and discovered that free-range meat actually has a distinctive flavor, unlike the bland, freezer-burnt Butterball my parents always serve.

I began my natural turkey quest by calling a few trustworthy butchers, places like University Seafood & Poultry (1317 NE 47th, 632-3900) and Queen Anne's A & J Meats & Seafood (2401 Queen Anne Ave N, 284-3885), who, I found, will not sell any puffed-up freak turkeys. "[Organic turkeys] just taste better," explained the butcher at A & J. A motherly older woman at University Seafood & Poultry warned me over the phone, "This turkey is fresh--so you have to order it ahead of time."


"Now, honey, this turkey is NOT self-basting. It's just turkey--old-fashioned, plain old turkey."

"Yes, ma'am."

Most of the natural turkeys we consume are raised in northern California, but I was able to get a local free-range bird on short notice from Acme Farms (1024 S King, 323-4300), via my new comrade-in-meat, Ron, over at Madison Market (1600 E Madison, 329-1545). While he was on the phone ordering my hormone-free 10-pounder, it dawned on me that a young turkey would get its head chopped off the next morning upon my request. I would think about this as I thrust a fistful of hazelnut, apple, and sausage stuffing into her body cavity.

Out of guilt (a nod to those fun-loving Puritans), I also bought the infamous soy cousin of Thanksgiving turkey, the Tofurky. Obviously, fake meat is not on par with meat meat, but the Tofurky was infinitely easier to prepare. Simply remove the Cornish-game-hen-sized lump from its plastic wrapper, apply oil and soy sauce, wrap in foil, and heat in the oven. It comes pre-stuffed, and the $14.99 package I purchased came with Tofurky "giblet" gravy (delicious, robust gluten flavor), Tofurky drumsticks (eh), and "wish-sticks" (brittle Tofurky jerky). The Tofurky roast had a remarkably turkey-like texture, including turkey-esque meat grain. Ease of preparation is not something I value on Thanksgiving, but if you are vegetarian and don't like to cook, I highly recommend Tofurky, available at health-food stores, co-ops, and that co-op co-opter Whole Foods (1026 NE 64th, 985-1500).

I personally enjoy submitting to a leisurely day of food preparation, vegetarian or not. Focused on cooking my natural bird, I accidentally fasted all day. I also got drunk and invited half the neighborhood over. A crowd of 15 encircled my chemical-free turkey and, as we ate, folks chatted about their versions of Thanksgiving. Mateo reminisced about his Italian family's Thanksgiving veal ravioli. Shugga Shack reminded me of the exquisite pleasure of deep-fried turkey--crisp and spicy-salty on the outside, so moist inside. (I do not recommend trying this at home. Take your bird to Willie's Taste of Soul BBQ & Custom Smoke House [6305 Beacon Ave S] to be deep-fried, whole, in a giant fryer so large and hot, he keeps it outside in the back yard. Willie himself injects the flesh with Cajun spices, and his wife bakes monumental coconut cakes... who could ask for more?)

My free-range turkey's skin crackled with its vermouth-and-lemon-infused butter coating, and the flesh was tender and succulent enough to eat bare nekkid, free of cranberry and giblet sauces. The hunger pangs that waxed and waned throughout the day helped heighten the flavor of the food, reminding me, distantly, of what harvest feasts were all about. I recognized that I could never taste a turkey like the Pilgrims did, living so close to starvation all winter long.