he news started percolating last week in grocery retailer trade publications: Butterball, the nation's largest turkey producer, will only be able to deliver about half the large, fresh turkeys that were anticipated for this Thanksgiving. A supermarket chain in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Big Y, was the first to sound the alarm, warning of "nationwide fresh turkey shortage."
Butterball confirmed the news. The problem, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Llorente, is "a decline in weight gains on some of our farms." Specifically, there's a shortage of fresh turkeys weighing 16 pounds or more. "While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue," Llorente concluded, in perfectly nonsensical corporate-speak.
Gwynn Guilford at Quartz notes that the turkey industry "has cranked out steadily heavier turkeys with each passing year," and argues that it's concerning that "Butterball, the U.S.'s turkey-farming powerhouse, isn't sure why its birds stay svelter than usual — or isn't yet saying."
But at least this year, there's no need to panic over a turkey shortage. Surely Butterball wouldn't mind if you rushed to the supermarket to nab your Thanksgiving bird right away, but they are also assuring everyone that its frozen turkey pipeline is running at 100 percent capacity. If you're really into buying a fresh turkey, you might have to turn to one of the many producers that isn't Butterball (or settle for a bird weighing in under 16 pounds), but you're also in the minority.
"If you look at the industry, 85 percent of the whole bird turkeys — what we eat at Thanksgiving — is frozen, flash frozen," says National Turkey Federation spokesman Keith Williams. "That leaves 15 percent of the market for fresh turkeys, and if you think about it there's going to be a portion of that 15 percent that's going by any one particular company."
Even in a worst-case scenario — an actual turkey shortage — there's no hard-and-fast rule that you have to serve up a large bird on Thanksgiving. Denise Reynolds at EmaxHealth suggests roasting a chicken or Cornish game hens, or even a non-fowl meat like rack of lamb, pork ribs, or prime rib. You can even "'pardon' the turkey and all animals and go vegetarian," Reynolds suggests, picking up a tofu-based substitute or just sides.
Los Angeles chef Sang Yoon, a Top Chef Masters contestant, tells Food & Wine he has two rules for Thanksgiving: "Don't eat turkey, and drink nothing but great bottles of Champagne all night." He created his own holiday tradition, called Sangsgiving. It's all about the people at your table, he says, and "my perception is that turkey is no one's favorite part of the meal. Everyone talks about the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the sides. The turkey is considered a huge success if it's not bone-dry."
Food for thought, I guess.
Meanwhile, Butterball is making news for more than just its mysteriously shrinking fresh birds. The company is also, for the first time, hiring men to staff its turkey help line. On Good Morning America last week, former 'N Sync singer Joey Fatone (now a celebrity TV chef) joined the first male telephone helper and other Butterball guys to play a turkey-themed game show. Not too great on the entertainment scale, but an amusing way to be reminded of (or learn) some basics of turkey cooking:
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