Monday, November 21, 2005

Our National Bird?

"You don't get an eagle by merging two turkeys." -- Tom Peters

Perhaps not, but then why would you want to? Turkeys are beautiful, charismatic, inquisitive, delicious birds. Can you say the same thing about the glorified vulture that we call the bald eagle? True enough, turkeys have gained a reputation for stupidity, but anyone who's really gotten to know them knows that that's not the case. Well, not entirely, anyway. In fact, there was a time when turkeys had a shot at taking their rightful place at the table - so to speak - as our national bird. In the words of Benjamin Franklin:

I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.

And he went on. According to feathersite:

Benjamin Franklin campaigned to make the turkey the national bird in 1784. He described it as "a Bird of Courage" that would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards "who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on," although he conceded that turkeys are "a little vain and silly, but not the worse emblem for that."

Clearly, Benjamin Franklin understood turkeys (or "turkey lurkeys" if you're not into the whole brevity thing). Had the revolutionary war actually been fought in turkey yards across the country, any British Soldier dressed like this?

Doomed. I mean my god, can you imagine?? Buttoned breeches? Long tailed coat? Flintlock musket? This is like a turkey lurk dream buffet. Can you imagine trying to pack your gunpowder and get a shot off, surrounded by a flock of thirty pound turkeys pecking at your gun, your jacket tails, your buttoned breeches, your powder horn. Those beaks are sharp! And if your uniform had any dangly, shiny metal bits, medals for instance? Forgedaboudit. Turkeys can jump, man!! Certainly, without constant vigilance, the turkeys would at least have your buttoned breeches off in no time. And if the turkeys had been in the pig poo again right before you came marching into that turkey yard.... Just doomed.

Which is why I think that anyone who still seriously thinks that the eagle was the best choice for our national bird is seriously deranged.

My turkey story starts like this:

So I'm in Agway one day, looking at, let's say, chicken waterers. And all spring long Agway has been selling a procession of baby chickens and ducks and geese and whatnot. Today in the cage are these funny looking chicks, and so I'm like what kind of chicks are those?

They're turkeys. (Technically that makes them poults. Technically.)

Really? I'll take two.

You should take at least three. They're driving me nuts.

OK, give me three then.

And that was the start of a beautiful relationship. It turns out that poults think that whoever feeds them is their mom. So as soon as they were big enough to live outside of their little cage, wherever I went they would run after me. So cute!! I had planted some red clover and the little turkey lurks, who were maybe four or five weeks old, would spend hours eating the little baby clovers. As they got older they would spend their days hunting for bugs in a little pack. I could always find them by listening to the "choop", "choop" noise that they would call to each other, back and forth, so that they wouldn't lose each other.

If you want to see turkeys hunting, rent Jurassic Park and imagine the velociraptors with feathers, wattles and snoods. Then you'll be able to see the raptors as my three turkeys hunting in their little pack; looking at you in that cock-eyed way; trying to devour anything that moves in front of them. Clearly the animators of that movie spent a lot of time hanging out with turkey lurks. And if you don't buy that, keep in mind that Dr. Grant first describes a velociraptor as a six foot turkey.


And so I guess you can see that I have a thing for turkeys.

Much has been made recently of pasturing chickens as a way of growing meat more sustainably. It is hard to think of ways in which the turkey is not the superior bird for this task. Turkeys range farther and longer than chickens. They eat more greens, they eat more bugs and they eat whole acorns. Which is pretty cool, by the way, I mean the acorn thing. I have a feeling that once turkeys are six weeks old or so, they really only need supplemental feed as a treat if they have enough access to pasture and woodland. My long term goal is to produce a pound of turkey for each pound of whole corn that I feed. And they're pretty easy to herd, so you can move them around the farm in a rotational scheme if you want. Try herding chickens sometime.

Furthermore, turkeys have wide ranging food preferences that can be utilized in different seasons. They'll make good use of quality pasture spring through fall. They have to be the most efficient way of turning the huge midsummer grasshopper crop into quality food. In the fall, they can fatten on acorns, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, wild grapes and what have you. They also love any type of loose clothing or dangling hair, buttons, anything shiny. They will eat your pen if you're writing near them (or at least they'll try) . They go for screwdrivers and ratchets big time, which can really speed up chores around the farm.

One day I was walking in the pasture when I came upon the turkeys eating a small greenish thing. At first I thought they had killed a frog. Then I realized that they were devouring a pile of pig manure. Then they tried to eat my T-shirt. Ewww! We learned to avoid them when they'd been in the poo again. You can smell it on them. Trust me.

Anyway, we'll be raising more turkeys. Did you guess? We're going to raise 20 heritage models next year, probably the old-fashioned bronze (this year I had broad-breasted bronze birds). Long term we'd like to do many more than that. I'd like to try marketing the smaller turkey hens as a roasting bird in late summer or early fall as an alternative to roasting a chicken for a family meal. They should be a reasonable size then - big enough to feed a family but not your massive holiday bird. Currently, most turkey hens in the big commercial operations never make it past poult stage because the males make a larger holiday bird.

So when I sit down to my Thanksgiving day meal this year, I will give thanks for turkey lurks, our rightful national bird. I'll look forward to the heritage birds we'll be raising next year. I'll hear their soft "chew chew" in my head. I miss them already.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Axis of Paradox

We are constantly being told to avoid "artery clogging" saturated fats, found in delicious foods like butter, eggs, cheese, pork and beef. It's for our health, they say. That's a problem for me, since I have a chest freezer full of beef and pork that I raised. I had steak (grassfed) and eggs (free range) for breakfast. But I'm not worried.

Most of you reading this have probably heard of the "French Paradox", which is the idea that it is paradoxical that the French eat a very high fat diet yet suffer from very low levels of heart disease (CHD). Jefferey Steingarten claims to have been the first one to have popularized this idea. But the French paradox is only a paradox if you believe that eating saturated fat plays a role in causing heart disease. I don't.

After the French paradox became widely known, researchers rushed out to explain why the French were so different from the rest of the world. Maybe they were protected from heart disease by the red wine they drank. Maybe it was the fruits and vegetables that they ate. And on and on.

Apparently no one ever actually bothered to check whether or not France was an outlier, a statistical anomaly. Until now. I looked, and it isn't. In fact, in Europe, the countries that eat the most fat from butter, cheese, pork and other animal sources have the lowest rates of heart disease. France is simply the most dramatic example of this. See for yourself:

How did I create this magical chart? Through tricky statistical manipulations? No, I'm not a statistician and I'm too lazy for that anyways. All I did was go to the British Heart Foundation's international statistics page, then got the FAO food disapearance data to see how much animal fat the people of each European country eat on average each day. I popped the two lists of numbers into Excel and got a scatter plot. You can easily replicate my little experiment given an hour or two.

The axis of paradox is composed of all European countries, whose dietary habits and health profiles stand in direct opposition to the idea that heart disease is primarily caused by the high consumption of saturated fat. On average, the people of Eastern Europe eat about 50 grams of fat from animal sources per day while the men suffer from 435 deaths from heart disease per 100,000 people per year. Their Western European contemporaries enjoy eating about 84 grams of animal fat per day while only losing about 170 men per 100,000 to heart disease each year.

If you'd like, you may bash my little study on the grounds that it's unscientific, but that's loser talk. If eating saturated fat is the primary cause of heart disease, how is it possible that French men have one NINTH the rate of heart disease mortality of Russians despite eating 125% more fat from animal sources? How is it possible that the people of Uzbekistan have four and a half times the rate of heart disease mortality of the Swiss despite eating only one fourth the amount of animal fats? Are the Swiss doctors 18 times better? I don't think so. How is it possible that Belgians have less than a fifth the heart disease mortality of the Ukrainians despite eating twice the fat from animal sources. I could go on, but you can see the chart and the following table - the table lists country, daily consumption of animal fat per capita, then heart disease death rate per 100,000 people among males aged 35-74.

Eastern Europe
CountryAnimal Fat ConsCHD Rate
Armenia 26.2 464
Bulgaria 49.5 296
Croatia 36.8 323
Czech Republic 61.3 294
Estonia 56.4 522
Georgia 27.1 507
Hungary 95.7 356
Kazakstan 44.2 703
Krgyzstan 37.1 439
Latvia 61.2 568
Lithuania 58.9 424
Poland 71.2 272
Romania 47.9 336
Russia 47.9 771
Slovakia 66.7 397
Slovenia 67.5 165
Tajikistan 10.7 331
Ukraine 45.1 839
Uzbekistan 25.8 540
Average 49.5 435

Western Europe
Country Animal Fat ConsCHD Rate
Austria 95.3 177
Belgium 88.5 146
Denmark 108.9 174
Finland 89.3 267
France 108.1 83
Germany 82.6 178
Greece 56.2 175
Ireland 81.8 277
Italy 71.7 117
Netherlands 84.2 151
Norway 89.1 183
Portugal 78.8 103
Spain 64.1 120
Sweden 74 185
Switzerland 96.8 120
UK 79.7 215
Average 84.3 167

And just for the record, the US daily consumption of animal fats was 71.6 grams per in 2002, and American men died of heart attacks at a rate of 230 people per 100,000 in 1999, the last years available for both statistics. You may notice that our animal fat consumption is exactly the same as Italy's, where they eat a "low-fat Mediterranean diet" yet our heart attack death rate is almost exactly double theirs. Whoopsie! And if you're wondering, they eat slightly more total fat than us too, 158 grams to 157.

Discussion and Conclusions

Even if you still want to cling idea that eating saturated fat causes heart disease, you have to admit that in Europe the consumption of saturated fat is AT BEST a secondary cause of heart disease. A more direct conclusion would be that saturated fat doesn't cause heart disease there. Keep in mind that although correlation does not imply causation, a lack of correlation casts serious doubts onto causation.

Eastern Europeans suffer from far less heart disease than Western Europeans despite eating far less saturated fat. There is not a single country in Europe in the top quartile of both saturated fat consumption and heart disease rates nor is there a country in the lowest quartile of both. Conversely, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Switzerland are in the top quartile of saturated fat consumption but in the lowest quartile of heart disease deaths. Armenia, Georgia, Kazakstan, Krgyzstan, Russia, The Ukraine and Uzbekistan are in the lowest quartile of fat consumption but the highest quartile of heart disease.

You may think that it's unfair to compare heart disease rates between Eastern and Western Europe due to different socioeconomic factors in the two areas, but actually that is exactly the point. For too long, heart disease has been considered a "disease of affluence". Google it, you'll see. The idea is that as we become more affluent we get lazy and fat. We can afford more luxury items like steak and cheese. Then we die of heart attacks. This graph shows that that theory is exactly wrong, methinks. Furthermore, although there is no trend amongst Western European countries, among Eastern European countries there is a clear trend that the ones that eat the least animal fat have the most heart attacks.

There is no French Paradox. France follows the general European trend of wealthy countries eating more animal products and having less heart disease. If there is a paradox here, all of the European countries stand together, united and unyielding in the "Axis of Paradox".