‘When the gingko leaves fall, it is turkey season,” Masahiro Omura tells me.
There is a 30-meter-deep well nearby, essential for keeping Omura’s 600 birds healthy in the summer. (Chickens, turkeys and ducks droop in the Japanese summer and sometimes die from heat stroke.) We are standing directly below his turkey coops in the town of Monzen, south of Wajima city on the western coast of the Noto Peninsula. My family has been buying turkeys from him for several years now, but a decade or two ago we had another turkey farm in Yamagata send us live chicks in the spring that we ate in the fall. That farm is now closed and the sending of live chicks has been suspended by the delivery companies.
In the almost 30 years I have been in Japan, I have cooked Thanksgiving dinner almost every year for countless numbers of friends. In our heyday, we served 20 adults and 20 children — requiring staggered courses for the two groups and days of cooking. I have stuffed the turkeys with blue cornbread and sausage, bread and celery, and even foie gras. But always we had our own turkeys, so the stuffing almost did not matter. The turkeys shone on their own.
As the years passed, we no longer could get turkey chicks, so we began eating our chickens instead. But then fate intervened in the form of the massive Kanto snowstorm of February 2014, destroying our chicken coops, thus putting an end to the chicken farm, so I returned to serving turkey for Thanksgiving.
Having heard about a free-range turkey farm on the Noto Peninsula, I searched the internet in Japanese using these parameters: 七面鳥・能登半島 (turkey, Noto Peninsula). Omura Turkey showed up on a few blog sites, and I made the call.
The Omura turkey farm is hyper-local, run by Masashi Omura and his wife, Hiromi. Most of their customers are restaurateurs or regulars, and most are probably Japanese. It took a few tries, but I finally caught up with Hiromi Omura via telephone. We discussed male vs. female birds and how many people I intended to serve.
Obviously, male turkeys are larger (8 to 10 kilograms in November) and more expensive (¥18,000) than females (¥12,000), which are only about 3 kg in November. The meat of the female is softer and more delicate, while the meat of the male is perhaps more deeply flavored.
Hiromi requested a fax in Japanese and I complied. The turkeys were better than I had remembered our own being, and worth every yen spent. I froze the bones after we ate the meat and pulled them out to make large pots of stock for other meals over the course of the year, so the economics began to make even more sense.
By coincidence, I have been visiting the Noto Peninsula and writing about the food and producers there since 2014. Last year I finally visited the Omura turkey farm and was able to meet the turkeys and the Omuras in person.
And now, this year is the first Thanksgiving in many years where I will not be in Japan. You might think I would be relieved to be excused from putting together a big meal, but the truth is, I am sad to be missing the turkey and the gathering of friends, now an intimate group compared to years before.
While there was a time that I made the trek into Tokyo to load up on fresh cranberries and the like, those days are long gone. Thanksgiving at our house became a much more simple affair. No more foie gras turkeys; we celebrated what we had in the fields or in the coops. And in the last several years, I have reduced the number of dishes on the groaning plates because it made sense to pare down to a more reasonable amount. Just because Thanksgiving somehow came to mean excess, does not mean we have to abide by those so-called traditions.
In fact, the spirit of Thanksgiving came from the bounty of the land and the people who knew how to coexist with, and eat from, the land: the native Americans who initiated the first Thanksgiving. But we interlopers from abroad have somehow once again subverted the original spirit of the day in the form of canned cranberry sauce and “butterball” turkeys.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, I saw the instantization of food and, at the same time, the growth of a counter-culture in America. Somewhere along the line, my mother began bringing out the “The Bradford History” and reading passages on Thanksgiving as my father carved the turkey. This reading was always punctuated by “We thank the earth for this good food,” to which we six siblings snickered to ourselves. But now I am the one who utters these words as we pick up our forks at Thanksgiving. I have my own copy of “The Bradford History” and always mean to prepare something to read, but then get too busy with the food.
I am deeply thankful for the turkeys that the Omuras raise. Certainly they are a bit pricey, but considering the thoughtful raising involved, as well as the effort and energy spent killing and cleaning each bird, are well worth the asking. I am not the best customer — always calling at the very last minute and paying late because I forget — but I appreciate the excellent job the Omuras do, and that we have access to responsibly raised native American birds in Japan.
Omura Turkey: 34-45 Koyama, Monzen-machi, Wajima-shi, Ishikawa Prefecture 927-2361; telephone/fax 0768-45-1481 (in Japanese only)
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5