Where the turkey is on the guest list
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Three years ago, Victor, a 25-pound turkey with glossy black feathers and a bright red wattle, was found strolling down a sidewalk in Germantown on Thanksgiving. Someone called the Montgomery County Humane Society, and the turkey, assumed to be wild, was taken to the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg. But instead of behaving like other antic wild birds, says Second Chance Executive Director Chris Montuori, "he was good-natured and seemed to like people. We realized this is not a wild turkey."
That's how Victor found his way to the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, a 400-acre farm in Poolesville that is a kind of retirement home for farm animals. And that's how, on a November day last year, Victor found himself eating Thanksgiving dinner instead of being Thanksgiving dinner.
Each year on the weekend before the holiday, Poplar Spring hosts Thanksgiving for the Turkeys. The potluck feast is a high point on the calendar for local vegans - last year, about 600 attended - who share dishes that contain no meat, eggs or dairy yet resemble traditional holiday fare. (This year's event is scheduled for Saturday; for details, go to www.animalsactuary.org.)
But before humans sit down to eat, the farm's six turkeys have their dinner. Terry Cummings, Poplar Spring's executive director, begins by introducing each one. There's Victor, of course, who has gained about 20 pounds since his Germantown adventure, along with a handful of other heritage birds. The lone white turkey, Opal, rescued from a Virginia slaughterhouse, more closely resembles the fowls that end up in your grocer's freezer. Her oversize breast and cropped toes cause her to pitch forward when she walks, and she has arthritis. But Cummings is quick to point out that, at 6 years old, she has bested the four-month life expectancy of most factory birds.
A half-dozen banquet tables, draped in white plastic and laid out with chopped fruit and bread, are brought into a small fenced area (not meant to pen the turkeys, but rather to allow them to eat in peace). Legs folded in, the tables are set flat on the ground, and the turkeys plunge into their dinner. Cummings watches, beaming. One advantage of this family-friendly event, she says, is that "kids get to see what a real turkey looks like."
Cummings and her husband, Dave Hoerauf, have lived at Poplar Spring since 1987. The landowners had agreed to rent them the farmhouse; much of the pastureland was leased to a cattle farmer. "I thought it would be neat living near animals," Cummings says. "I'd feed them apples, and I named them all." Until the day they were loaded onto trucks, Cummings recalls. "There was all this commotion, and men were separating calves from their mothers. I hadn't realized these were beef cattle."
With a degree in animal science from the University of Maryland and a career of working with animals, including 12 years in the veterinary department of the National Zoo, Cummings approached the owners about starting an animal sanctuary, and they agreed. Three years later, Hoerauf quit his job in the printing business to join her in running the nonprofit operation, which survives exclusively on public donations and volunteer labor. Most of the 200 or so farm animals that live here have been abandoned or abused, brought in by the Humane Society or by those who have found an animal, such as Victor, out wandering the streets.
Once the turkeys have gobbled their food, it's time for the humans to dig in. Scores of platters, tins and Tupperware have been set out, buffet-style, along with about 60 dining tables surrounded by folding chairs and bales of hay. The feast includes several vegan variations on turkey, including Cummings's "turkey" in puff pastry, as well as traditional Thanksgiving dishes: green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, squash, stuffing and cranberries. Desserts are fruit pies, cookies and cakes, and even "cheese" cake, all made without animal products.
Comfort food is important around holiday time, says Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of six vegan cookbooks (including "Veganomicon," which has been described as "the Joy of Cooking for vegans") and founder of the Web site Post Punk Kitchen. Although Moskowitz was not at the Poplar Spring dinner last year, several of her recipes were, including Cherry Sage "Sausage" (made with beans and wheat gluten) and fruit crisp.
Moskowitz sees no irony in the vegan's craving for foods that resemble meat. "When people make the transition to vegetarian or vegan, it's usually out of concern for animals, not because they don't like the tastes and textures of animal products," she says. "That's why vegans make milks out of cashews and meat substitutes from seitan and tofu."
Being vegetarian is easier than it has ever been, says Robin Walker, whose contribution was tofu potpie: "like traditional potpie, but cruelty-free," she says. Walker, who lives in Chevy Chase, is executive director of a small nonprofit organization and a volunteer at Poplar Spring. She has been a vegetarian for 30 years and vegan for most of that time, and she's amazed that these days, she can buy a vegan pie crust at the grocery store.
The Poplar Spring event is a reunion not just for vegans but also for many of the area's animal rights activists. "A lot of the same people come every year," says Erica Meier, a Takoma Park resident who is executive director of the not-for-profit group Compassion Over Killing. Meier brought her version of pigs in blankets: vegetarian hot dogs baked in dairy-free pastry.
Nolan Turner, 16, from Dickerson has been attending Thanksgiving for the Turkeys for as long as he can remember, about the same amount of time he has been a vegetarian. When he was a little kid, he says, "my parents leveled with me: They said, 'If you want to eat meat, you can. But this is what it is. It's a dead animal."
The food goes quickly, empty containers are packaged up, and tables are cleared by volunteers as others linger, standing in clusters or sitting on the grass to chat. The sun is starting to ease lower across the trees in the distance, and organizers encourage us to take the pumpkins, which have been donated to decorate the dining area, across the field to the pigs. Currently, 41 pigs live at Poplar Spring and, like the other animals, have access to the entire farm, though it's hard to picture one of these guys romping in the meadow. When a pig - usually raised to six months and slaughtered at around 250 pounds - is left to age in peace, it might live 10 or more years and grow to 800 pounds, like some of those at Poplar Spring.
I pass kids stomping in a puddle and stand by the fence watching the pigs, contentedly supine in their muddy paddock. I heave my pumpkin over the fence, and it cracks open as it lands, the bright orange flesh a holiday treat for pigs who will never become pork.
More than 500 vegan bloggers have joined forces to post daily recipes, observations and sources in November on the Web site Vegan MOFO (or Vegan Month of Food) at veganmofo.wordpress.com.