Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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Lunch With...

Tai Johnson-Spratt


Talking turkey and much more at Chicago Speakeasy

Tai Johnson Spratt owned Iowa’s most exotic poultry facility ever until she closed Fox Hollow Farm five years ago. She was having some problems from motorcycle injuries and finding it harder than ever to make a profit raising the best-tasting birds in Iowa. She is also an American pioneer in manufacturing in China. We asked her to lunch to talk turkey (it’s November) and about other things about which this tough lady is an expert.

She chose Chicago Speakeasy, a place midway between her Elkhart farm and my condo on the west edge of Des Moines.

“It’s such a good, consistent restaurant. The salad bar is the best around and didn’t they win CITYVIEW’s ‘Best Place for Steak’ contest?”

Yes, they did.

The salad bar, incidentally, is one of the last in the metro to be grandfathered in for all ice cooling. Newer places have to use electric cooling. Nothing works better than all ice, and Chicago Speakeasy convinces people of that on one visit. They also still serve old fashioned things like pickled herring on the bar.

Prep Iowa

Most of all, we wanted to know what Johnson-Spratt thought about poultry options for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Basically, people have four options today. You can go with heritage birds like I used to raise, organic birds which are more popular now than before, vegetarian things like tofurkey, or the basic supermarket turkey that has been injected with saline, margarine or butter and other chemicals,” she said.

Johnson-Spratt calls the latter birds “broad breasted” adding that they are genetically engineered to have more breast meat and less dark meat. She reminds us that they are so top heavy they can’t fly like wild or heritage turkeys.

“They also reach market weight, 18 to 20 pounds, before they are 3 and a half months old. My heritage turkeys took seven to eight months to get that big, but I usually tried for 23 pounds, which is what most do today. Heritage birds are smarter, too. I think they bred the brains out of broad breasted turkeys to get bigger breasts. Heritage birds actually have personalities. They make good pets. Since they can fly, they are really hard to move into shelter. This makes them prey for predators, though,” she said.

What other differences are there between heritage turkeys and Butterballs?

“You can see the breastbone on a heritage turkey. It sticks up. Not at all on a broad breasted. Our heritage birds had an affinity for wild turkeys. They would call them over for a visit, and they would come. We often had wild turkeys in our driveway,” she said.

What kinds of heritage turkeys does she prefer?

“I raised Black Spanish, Blue Slate, Lavender, Sweet Grass, Naragansett, Bourbon Red and Royal Palm. Lavenders were my favorite. They grew the largest, and their plucked pin feathers looked the best off a carcass. I liked Bourbon Reds, too, but part of that was I loved their name. They were easy to market,” she said.

Does she have any non-turkey suggestions for Thanksgiving dinner?

“I think goose is the best substitute for turkey. Ducks are close, too. Both are smaller and work great for small families. I quit trying to raise geese early on because they are mean, they bully other birds and make bad neighbors. Ducks are great but they cost too much to process, especially after the Amish quit processing them in southern Iowa. When I retired five years ago, it cost $4 a bird to process a duckling and $9 for a goose. Turkeys were much larger yet cheaper. As far as I know, Greene is the only place left in Iowa to have poultry processed. It’s not possible to make a living anymore raising heritage birds,” she said.

What does she miss the most?

“Guineas. They are the best tasting birds of all. I had them along with quail, pheasants, Muscovy ducks, turkeys, chickens, peacocks and emus. Guineas were the most rewarding,” she recalled.

What does she miss the least?

“Farmers market. I loved connecting with the customers, but it was hard getting up at 3 a.m. to open at 7 a.m. I hated the control. One time Dan Rather came to my farm with CBS news and then to the market. Kelly (Downtown Farmers Market Director Kelly Foss) was so concerned about what I might say that she would not leave us alone. They would not let the market find itself. They always wanted to control everything,” she said.

What else does she not miss?

“Fighting predators. One year we had human poachers steal 50 of our largest turkeys. Owls were bad ass killers. They would kill a chicken and not leave anything more than intestines behind. The state will not let you kill an owl, but the Amish taught me how to get rid of them legally. It involves flood lights where they like to perch. Neighbor’s dogs and coyotes were also killers. Now days, my biggest poaching problem is deer. They dig up my beets and eat them,” Johnson-Spratt revealed.

What advice does she have for Iowans looking to do business in China?

“Learn the language or always take a trusted translator with you. Go to trade fairs. That’s the best place to find a company that can manufacture what you want to produce. Good news is that visas are much easier now than in my day. I could never stay for more than six months, and then I had to wait six months to return. A lot of ideas get stolen in six months,” she warned.

What has she learned in retirement?

“I retired too soon. I got bored. I was canning 500 jars of jelly. How stupid is that? I had to go back to work, but not, for a change, as my own boss. I work in the kitchen at Embassy Club and love it. I am now loving wine making with various fruits I raise. You can only eat so much jelly, but you can drink lots of wine. Blackberry wine is my favorite and my specialty,” she declared, smiling. ♦

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