Philippe Cousteau's Thanksgiving ethical dilemma
November 21st, 2011
02:30 PM ET
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Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite holiday. It’s the one day of the year that’s off-limits on my calendar for anything other than family, dear friends and my complete and total domination of the kitchen. No work, no crazy international travel schedule; it’s all about bringing loved ones together to share an amazing traditional holiday meal complete with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, the works.

This year, however, work and my favorite holiday collided. My team and I at EarthEcho International, the environmental education nonprofit I co-founded with my mother and sister, had just taken the wraps off of a new tool for educators and students to help them explore the environmental and health impact of daily food choices called What’s On Your Fork?

In fact, the main element of this resource is a guide created in collaboration with the Meatless Monday campaign to help students start each week with options for healthy, environmentally friendly meat-free alternatives. You can see where I might be feeling a little conflicted about my poultry-centered food extravaganza.

Should the bird stay on the menu?

Without hesitation, I say yes - and not just because Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday.

The fact of the matter is that while I follow a largely vegetarian diet I, like many folks, enjoy eating meat on occasion. For me, it’s all about making smart food choices with positive impact year round, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. I can’t think of a better place to start than one of the most celebrated food-focused holidays of the year, turkey and all.

The Turkey
Most turkeys eaten this Thanksgiving will be of a single breed, the Broad-breasted White. This industrially-bred turkey wouldn't exist without our modern system of food production because the birds no longer have the ability to reproduce on their own. In fact their breasts are so large they can barely walk and often have been stuffed full of growth supplements, antibiotics and then injected with liquid post processing. A better choice in my opinion is to take a walk on the wild side and seek out local growers who raise "heritage" breeds.

5 Reasons to buy a heritage turkey

With names like American Standard Bronze and Bourbon Red these birds are as flavorful as their names are colorful. You’re also helping support local farmers working to preserve these amazing breeds and bring diversity back to the table. We found our heritage turkey source at our local farmers market. Organic and free-range turkeys are also great options.

The Preparation
My turkey is pretty simple. When I pick up the bird it is fresh not frozen so I don’t have to worry about thawing it out. Instead, the day before Thanksgiving I wash the turkey with cold water and dry it off, then rub butter all over it and salt it.

Leaving it overnight in the refrigerator gets a nice coating on the bird and by the next morning it is ready.

Philippe Cousteau's Perfect Turkey

Note that I don’t put traditional stuffing inside the turkey, my mother makes that separately, instead I place a mixture of herbs, butter, and vegetables into the body cavity that season the bird beautifully and then discard them after cooking.

1 onion, coarsely chopped
4 bay leaves
1/2 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 celery sticks
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1/4 cup dried herbs de provence
Tbsp of salt and Tbsp of pepper
3 sticks of butter: one stick chopped up and added to the stuffing I put inside the bird, the other 2 sticks go into the bottom of the pan.
1 750 ml bottle of vermouth

Combine the onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, herbs de provence, thyme, rosemary, parsley, one stick of butter, salt and pepper into a mixing bowl and mush together by hand. Then stuff the mixture into the turkey.

Leave at room temperature for 2 hours before putting in the oven. Turn the turkey upside down on the roasting rack and preheat oven to 450 degrees until ready.

Place turkey in lowest rack of the oven upside down for one hour, this allows the juices from the stuffing to soak into the turkey. Add half the bottle of dry vermouth and one stick of butter to the bottom of the pan along with another bay leaf or two and some of the leftover herbs. Then turn the turkey over right side up and turn heat to 350 degrees.

The key is to cook them slowly. As the drippings collect in the bottom of the pan the vermouth will slowly evaporate but the butter will not. The vermouth will cook down or reduce so add the other stick of butter after an hour and a half and the rest of the vermouth.

Use a baster to suck up the juice and regularly squirt over the body of the turkey throughout the cooking process. If the juice level gets too low you can add a bit of water, turkey stock and/or more vermouth to keep it moist in the bottom of the pan.

If the skin of the turkey gets too dry and crispy, put a sheet of aluminum foil, oiled parchment or buttered cheesecloth over the top of the body. Cook time depends on the weight of the bird. Internal temperature should be 180 degrees when thermometer is put into the thickest part of the thigh not touching the bone.

After 4-5 hours (depending on the size of the bird) use a cooking thermometer to make sure the turkey is the right temperature and remove from oven. Place a sheet of aluminum foil over the body and let the turkey sit for 10-15 minutes for the juice to absorb back into the meat, the foil will keep it warm.

In the meantime take a fat separator container (you can find them at many cooking stores) and pour the drippings from the bottom of the pan into the separator. Pour off the juice leaving the fat behind and voila - perfect gravy.

Carve the turkey and enjoy.

The Sides
Carrots and potatoes are mainstays on our Thanksgiving table. They also happen to be great choices because they are seasonally appropriate this time of year. More and more there are great heirloom varieties available for both of these holiday staples.

Remember, heirloom means food that was commonly grown in the past but which has fallen out of favor in our industrialized farming system. In fact, in the past it people had access to a myriad of foods that we would scarcely recognize. Thomas Jefferson for example grew a dizzying variety of vegetables that many people haven’t even heard of including over 80 different types of apples!

Carrots come in every shape, size and color from purple to pale yellow. A little poking around online reveals staggering numbers of unique varieties of potatoes.

Like our friend the turkey, seeking out and eating heirloom varieties helps preserve them for future generations. One word about choosing spuds: selecting organic is particularly important when eating "regular" potatoes because of the toxicity of the inputs used in conventional production.

Potatoes are ranked ninth on the Environmental Working Group's dirty dozen list (ranking of pesticide residues found on conventional fruits and vegetables). This is an important point for our family as we like them baked and mashed.

The Wine
This is a critical part of any Cousteau family gathering. Good and plentiful is the secret on this front.

I think you get the idea. My point is that when it comes to food, we can make choices every day, even on the best food holiday of the year, that are good for people and the planet. Locally grown and produced, heirloom varieties, heritage breeds, organics, vegetarian options, free-range poultry, grass-fed beef – there are a range of options to fit into any lifestyle.

When we started collaborating with our friends at the Toyota Foundation, Participant Media, Discovery Education and the teams at the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and Meatless Monday to create the Water Planet Challenge What’s On Your Fork? resources, I had no idea we would launch right before my favorite feast of the year.

It turns out Thanksgiving is a great holiday for reflection as well as for giving thanks. Bon appétit!



soundoff (161 Responses)
  1. Mary Contraire

    I used to be an omnivore, and I am an organic farmer . I started to raise my own animals, goats, chickens, and interacted with them....I eventually let the chickens go and forage as free range, and gave them names beacuse each one has their own personalities, and I found they even help me cut down pests in my vegetable plots. Same happened with my goats that ended up to be my "weed whackers" since they eat everything, I let them out in a field to clear the vegetation before planting!!!. Now I only eat vegetables, and those unfertilized eggs from my free range farmed chickens, buy organic milk, cheese, and yoghurt from other organic farmers in my community. We who grow organic produce have diffiuclty finding non GMO seeds! That means even vegetarians who do not eat organic produce are risking their lives by buying food that is full of pesticides, and grown with part of their plant material DNA spliced with even some animal parts! We are seeing our heritage vegetable and fruit plant species being contaminated with GMO! These GMO pattents are done by corrupting the natural seeds from normal pollinated plants. A lot of scientists are hired to use their brains for the wrong reason. This GMO was originally done to speed up the process of creating hybrids from the same species, only picking the healthiest plant and using the DNA from the more productive plant to increase yields . Now scientists are hired by commercial companies involved in DNA manipulation to creat freak plants that would resist their herbicides and pesticides being sold to guarantee a bountiful harvest. Again the intention wasn't to help feed the world, but make more money from selling these toxic chemicals. These are the evil people in our world, and it is viscious commercialism that is eroding our ability to grow, and eat organic food. And for meat eaters this should be a concern because as Philippe wrote that the turkeys are "created" by GMO scientists pattent a turkey species that would have larger breasts than normal. Meat eaters must beware of eating those commercial turkeys, beef, or chicken from commercial agricultural farms because like all commercial grade domestic animals bred for meat, are full of hormones to make the animal grow faster and bigger. These commercial type breeds are then pumped with antibiotics to prevent disease because those animals are kept in large numbers on smaller tracts of land, or in cages. These animals are not destined to live long since all the commercial farms want is to get them big, fat and ready for market as soon as possible! All those hormones and antibiotics, not to mention the GMO feeds these animal eat ruin our immunity and cause humans to be more susceptible to kidney failure, diabetes, and cancer.

    November 28, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  2. Poultry lady

    I eat meat a few times a week- meat we've raised ourselves, on our small farm. Yesterday(Thanksgiving), we had a heritage breed turkey we raised ourselves- in six months of very hard work. I can tell you that not only was it delicious and tender, it did not give me any of the gastric issues I have had with eating conventionally raised turkey. I will add that it was the most expensive turkey I've ever had. However, it was worth it. I think that if you eat meat, you should (ethically) require yourself to raise it from birth to table, at least once, just as I think that if you eat ANYTHING, you should raise at least a portion of it yourself, somehow- community garden, container gardening, volunteering/bartering at a CSA or turning some of your LAWN into GARDENS. Taking responsibility for raising our own has given us a reverence and a huge appreciation for the meat we do eat- and we eat significantly less, now that we know the full price. Although we raise only poultry, we barter with other friends for grass fed beef and lamb, too, for variety. It's hard work but we feel better about ourselves for having done it this way.

    November 26, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Rippo

      POULTRY LADY. I would love to know WHY you feel it is necessary to eat an animal. Did you have a conversation with a nutritionist, did you study or do any REAL research in regard to your health and that of all the people you fed this bird to? Do you know specifically what reason you raised fed, used resources and killed a living creature for? meaning.... do you know what you were after for your nutirition; i.e protein, glucosamine, vitamins, minerals, etc.. If so are you certain that a dead bird is the only way to obtain these specific qualities?
      As a farmer you MUST be aware of how much feed grain, veggies, etc. water, etc. you fed this bird over the six months you raised it? Does it make sense from a purely economically efficient perspective to feed an animal up to 20 times more resources than you are getting gout of it?
      Then you speak about "ethically". Would you be OK if I were to come to your farm and eat your dog? Better yet are you ok with eating it? Why wouldnt you? Its just another animal. Are you suggesting that your turkeys dont have the capacity to love, nurture, feel empathy, compassion, etc.. for one another and YOU? How might your dog feel if you were to turn the knife on him? How does "ethically factor in if in fact the turkey had no input in the situation?
      Your positions do "seem kind" but I truly contest the very nature of why we do "what we do" in regard to eating animals? the waste of resources alone is arrogant of our species. The arrogance and ignorance we exude while taking a position of significance and almighty power to kill another is heartfully painful to me to grasp.
      Yes you guessed it, I dont eat animals flesh or fluids nor do I wear their skin. Why? Because I actually thought about it, researched it and contemplated feelings I have about being here in this life. What am I here for, what do I need to survive and thrive without being wasteful, what have I ME chosen rather than just going along with unfounded tradition and social norms? What do I feel is is ethical? Do I want peace? Do I insist upon it in my life? Am I offering peace? If not how can I possibly insist upon it? My arrogance needs to be checked from time to time but NEVER when I am putting food in my mouth. EVER. Never when I buy something to cloth myself, never when entertaining myself. We tend to be quite arrogant and elitist species. We dont OWN the planet no more than men dont own women, whites own blacks and nazi's own Jews.. I look forward to the day when we lift higher and become more responsible and in action around TRUE inner inspection on many levels. I am not complete. I have a long way to go .. but.. I am in action. I am committed to living a life of peace, contribution, resourcefulness, and ridding myself of arrogance and ignorance. I have a feeling we would all be in a much better place if we all did that ALOT more...

      November 27, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
      • Rid yourself of Arrogance??

        Really? Your entire statement is invalidated by your arrogance. Who are you to preach to ANYONE on what to do or how to do it? Eat what you want, don't eat what you don't want and keep your completely biased opinion to yourself.

        November 18, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Rippo

    Phillipe is a man out of integrity in the highest sense. He has the opportunity to create a greater awareness of what it actually takes to raise torture and slaughter and animals for the sake of tradition and convenience. It is a huge trap we all fall into and I find it another arrogant behavioral norm for our species. Nine out of ten of us would NEVER feel comfortable if our dogs or cats were raised tortured and slaughtered in the way the animals we inflict the same horrors on to these defenseless animals. THe very flesh and fluids from these tortured and highly unsanitary animals we put into the mouths of our children and smile abotu it. YES the intention is god but the reality MOST EVERYONE is ignoring for the sake of convenience is a most unethical phenomena that we engage in by actually PAYING others to do the extreme dirty work that mostly none of us would do ourselves. Kinda like a hit man in the most unethical sense. Not to mention if Phillipe was really concerned about feeding the world efficiently he wouldnt promote eating the flesh and fluids of animals that take 20 TIMES MORE RESOURCES TO PRODUCE than actually eating the HEALTHY vegetables and grain we feed to livestock. THe amount of waste is horrific, IN fact on just ONE farm 70,000 pounds of turkey waste is produced every day from the 1.5 million turkeys on the farm.. Its beyond arrogant and wasteful and foolish. Shame on you Phillipe for not telling the truth and being a real stand to make a real difference .. Play a bigger game man, you are jaded for convenience.. Shame...

    November 24, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Rippo the Idiot

      You are an idiot. Seriously. Go away.

      November 18, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  4. Terri Ann

    Are you kidding me? This is your dilemma? I'm pretty sure choosing one breed of turkey over another doesn't alleviate the pain it feels when it is killed for your dinner. Eating turkey at Thanksgiving or any other time is neither environmental or ethical. How about taking a stand when it's the most challenging?

    November 23, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
  5. Terri Nelson-Bunge

    Are you kidding me? This is your dilemma? We want to encourage eating a specific type of turkey so we can preserve it for future generations? I'm pretty sure any kind of turkey feels the same when you are killing it for food. How about actually living what you believe 24/7? Thanksgiving is no holiday for animals, just us. This is not an environmental approach and certainly not an ethical one.

    November 23, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  6. M D

    I've been reading some of the comments here and it is really disappointing to see so much anger. I don't care how you eat as long as you don't FORCE your beliefs on me. It seems as if many of you make it your mission in life to degrade others if they don't believe as you and that is sad.
    I appreciated what "Alto Farmer" had to say, concerning the higher price of his product. Unfortunately, organic food is more expensive and that higher price stops many from buying it. If the agricultural industry can figure out how to produce the same quantities as they now produce at reasonable prices, you will see an organic agricultural industry. It may be a very difficult though. When the world population was at 1 Billion (1800), feeding that many people wasn't difficult through the organic farming methods of the time. By 1930 there were 2 Billion people and feeding them was becoming more difficult with the organic farming methods. So, chemicals in agriculture came into use. This was around the mid 1900's (about 60-70 years ago). They were used to increase production and to save crops from insects and they were obviously successful. We now have 7 BILLION people on the planet and it is projected that there will be 8 BILLION people by 2025. Somehow, those people will need to be fed. You can live without smart phones, computers, cars, electricity and just about anything else we have today, but we still can't live without food and water.
    For those of you that want to condemn the agricultural industry, you need to realize that they feed you whether you like it or not. I doubt that many of you are growing and providing ALL of your own food. If you are that is commendable. How much land does it take for you to be able to do that?
    If it is important to you that all food be raised organically, then you need to get to work and figure out how it can be done. You have to figure out how to continue producing more each year to feed the raising world production. Most importantly, how it can be done so that people can still afford to buy it. Feeding people is a serious business. If there is no food, people DIE!
    If you want an organic world, you are going to have to do some hard work instead of big talk because people's lives are depending on it, including YOURS!
    Now, I hope all of you have a great Thanksgiving, no matter what you choose to eat. I just ask one thing, give thanks for your family, for all you have AND for those that produce the food you eat. After all, without them, you wouldn't be here. Think about it!

    November 23, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Kaiviertel

      I appreciate your desire to reason this one out, I do, however, believe you are missing some crucial details. For one, our agricultural food system does near nothing to assist the 7 billion on the planet to eat. As far as fertilizers are concerned, the fertilizers used on a massive scale today are an (un)happy coincidence that scientists were able to "figure out" that the massive stores of ammonium nitrate the government was using for explosions in WWII could be used as an artificial fertilizer. Toss in a little of the Nixon-era dis-assembly of the small farm to pave the way for massive agri-business, and you have a country of 300 million people who are eating over processed and corporate profit driven cheap food. It would be possible to feed the U.S. on healthy and organic food. Eliminate the 7.5 billion dollar government subsidies to big agriculture and divert it to small, poly-culture farms, good food would become cheap and available. Once again, I admire your wish to bring a different perspective to the issue, but I have to say "the US is feeding the world" argument just doesn't hold water.

      November 24, 2011 at 3:42 am |
  7. mapapakh

    http://farmsanctuary.typepad.com/making_hay/2011/09/why-carnism-matters.html

    November 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  8. Marion

    I'm a vegan and I don't take days off from that.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  9. BBBRaven

    "I eat meat, but only if it is humanely raised" should have been a choice. http://www.certifiedhumane.org/

    November 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  10. Mensaboy

    Carnivores rule the food chain. In the wild, vegetarians are on the menu.

    November 23, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Rick

      That may be the case, but you are not a carnivore

      November 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Nick

      Yes, Vegetarians do terribly in the wild, like gorillas, elephants and rhinos

      November 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
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