Food & Drink

Feast Q&A: Giving the president the official bird

Members of the flock of potentially presidential turkeys frolic at Foster Farms’ ranch.
Members of the flock of potentially presidential turkeys frolic at Foster Farms’ ranch. Foster Farms

Later this month, Barack Obama will talk turkey at the annual Presidential Thanksgiving Presentation ceremony at the White House. A lucky bird (and usually an alternate) receives a presidential pardon, sparing it from becoming holiday dinner. The turkeys also get names, courtesy of White House staff.

This year, Modesto-based Foster Farms was chosen to supply the official presidential turkeys, a process that involves a lot more than picking out some big birds. The Bee talked with Ira Brill, Fosters Farms communications director and an unofficial “presidential turkey” historian, about the tradition.

Q. Has Foster Farms ever raised a presidential turkey before?

A. Yes. In 2010, we raised the presidential turkey for the first time. That was also for President Obama.

Q. Do presidential turkeys get special treatment?

A. We raise the birds pretty much like we do for those supplied to your local supermarket, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot more security. There are 23 birds in the presidential flock. They’re Nicolas turkeys, a handsome white turkey that was originally from Sonoma, so it has California roots. The one thing that’s really different is their socialization. The birds that will be pardoned have to go before at least 150 people at the White House ceremony, including dozens of photographers. They have to be calm. They have to get used to people and noises.

We get them ready by playing music. In 2010, the song the turkeys really responded to was Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” They loved that one. This year, the flock is partial to country western. Their favorite songs are “Act Naturally” by Buck Owens and “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson. We can tell they like it by the way they gobble.

Q. Who gets to go to the White House?

A. In late November, all 23 birds will be judged on their physical appearance and relative calmness. They need to sit quietly on a table during the ceremony. The two best birds will be selected as the presidential turkey and his alternate. They’ll each weigh about 40 pounds. To paraphrase Gen. Sherman, if nominated, they will not run; if selected, they will not be served.

After we narrow it down to two, they’ll fly on United Airlines in a special transport container. United and the FAA designate the flight as “Turkey One.” In Washington, D.C., they’ll stay at the Willard InterContinental Hotel, the hotel of presidents. Then they’ll be pardoned.

Q. Why two turkeys?

A. It’s backup. With anything presidential, there’s always a backup just in case. If a bird develops an illness before it’s pardoned, there’s a plan. The other bird can step in. It’s only been necessary once, when the bird got loose in the hotel.

Q. What happens after that?

A. They’ll go to a Virginia turkey sanctuary that was started by a former Virginia governor (Westmoreland Davis) who also was a turkey farmer.

Q. How did this all get started?

A. People think it started with President Truman in 1947 when he received a turkey from the national poultry board. (The National Turkey Federation is in charge of the presidential turkeys now.) But he didn’t pardon the bird – he told reporters he was going to serve it to guests back home in Missouri. … The first official presidential turkey pardon ceremony was 1989 under President George H.W. Bush. They’ve been pardoning turkeys ever since.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Ira Brill

Unofficial ‘presidential turkey’ historian

Brill also is Fosters Farms’ communications director. The Modesto-based company was chosen to supply the official “presidential turkeys” this year.