Pop’s Thanksgiving Turkey
As far back as I can remember, Pop was in charge of the Thanksgiving turkey, long before the bird came anywhere near the oven. He took this responsibility seriously starting with the purchase of the bird honored to grace our table. Around the time he started building the Russian River dacha, he began buying our turkeys in Sebastopol from Vast’s Turkeyland. Vast, as we called him, started his farm on acreage right off Highway 116.
It was on Pop’s way to the River, and he had a habit of investigating all the organic or natural farmers along the way, whether they grew cherries, raspberries (now the famous Koslowski Farms), chickens or turkeys. The terms natural and organic were not in anyone’s vocabulary then as for the most part our food was probably raised or grown that way anyway, especially in Sonoma county.
Pop would stop by Vast’s in early fall when the quince tree bore its fruit. Quince and rose petal jams are Russian favorites as were the choice of jams for the Lobanovsky family in Zhitomir, Russia. Neither Vast nor his wife knew what to do with this strange looking gnarly fruit, but Pop did. They generously allowed him to pick as much of it as he wanted. In turn he brought several jars of his wonderful jam to Vast’s family after the holidays. This exchange went on for years.
As time passed, Vast expanded his business. First came the home-smoked turkeys, then the homemade turkey sandwiches prepared by Vast’s beautiful wife and served at picnic tables in their front yard. In a few years, a waterwheel was added as a landscaping accent. Soon after came a restaurant specializing in turkey dinners right there on the farm. They also catered weddings and special events, and Vast’s children, who ran around in overalls just a few short years before, were now helping their mom and dad serve home cooked turkey specialties.
All along, come early November, we would stop by and order our bird, a hen of course. According to Vast, hens are extra tender. In the early years, his turkeys wandered in the large, fenced front yard. There were hundreds of them. We would walk up to the pens and see them strutting about. Turkeys are very funny, and it was quite entertaining to watch them. The weekend before Thanksgiving Pop would pick up our bird and instructions from Vast on how to cook it. Pop knew everything at that point: what the bird had been fed, that it was free range (a term not even coined yet), and had been lovingly raised and cared for. All this was important to him.
Then Mama and I got to work. Before Pop could start his production, we had to remove the remaining feathers and quills still stuck in Mrs. Hen. I look back fondly on this step since today’s turkeys are prepped so bare-butt clean that there is no interim step. It’s almost too easy. Mama and I had to get out the tweezers, sit down at the kitchen table, turkey neck on Mama’s side, turkey butt on mine, and patiently pull out the quills. (Photo below: Plucking the turkey, 1965, courtesy Maria Lobanovsky family archives.) Sometimes the big fat ones would squirt ink all over if you weren’t careful. It was an odd sort of challenge, finding the largest quill and removing it successfully. Once finished, the bird was washed, dried, covered and put back in the refrigerator to await Pop’s artistry. I have never eaten a better turkey than his.
Pop literally spent the whole of Thanksgiving Day on it. From preparing the stuffing, to rubbing the bird down, to wrapping the wings in buttered cheesecloth. It was when Olga Chekene called me to ask how Pop roasted his famous turkey that I happened to write down his instructions, word for word, to give to her. (Photo, lower right: Pop with Vast’s turkey, roasted and ready to carve. Courtesy Maria Lobanovsky family archives.) Eventually, Vast and his wife retired and closed the family farm and restaurant. For me it was the end of an era.
Epilogue…Who would have foreseen that some forty years after my parents’ first acquaintance with Vast and his family at “Turkeyland” I would find myself having moved to Sonoma. Not far from my new home at the intersection of Highway 121 and Napa Road was Laura Chenel’s goat farm, a former dairy that had been owned by Sonoma’s reknown Stornetta family.
In my early years at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco I worked with Bobbi Stornetta, who drove into the city daily from the then dairy farm her parents owned. Being a long-standing fan of Clover-Stornetta products from my Russian River days, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that Bobbi was part of the very family that produced and cared for Clo and her herd of contented cows!
In 1993 the Stornettas sold their dairy farm to Laura who then turned it into a paradise for her herd of goats and a modern cheese production facility. During the years that had gone by Laura had studied in France and learned how to make goat cheese. Today she is recognized as the pioneer of America’s goat cheese production and has won many awards as an artisan of fine, handcrafted goat cheese products.
Shortly after my move to Sonoma, I came across a book about the county that included Laura, her history and connection with farming. The article featured a portrait of Laura. All of a sudden I knew who Laura Chenel was because, to my surprise, she looked exactly like her mother, Vast’s wife, in the days when my parents and I used to stop by her family’s farm to order our turkeys. One of those little girls that I had seen years before running around in overalls, must have been Laura. Unfortunately, the goat farm was sold to a French firm in 2006 before I had a chance to stop by and reintroduce myself. There’s no way Laura would not have been familiar with “Jerry, that nice Russian man” who lovingly delivered jars of quince jam to Vast’s family year after year.