For Thanksgiving’s 140 original celebrants in l621, the board groaned with a lot more than turkey. "Our harvest being gotten in," wrote colonist Edward Winslow, "our governor sent four men out fowling." By day’s end, they hauled back a week’s worth of geese, ducks, wild turkeys, swans, and quail. The Wampanoag’s King Massasoit, always the proper guest, heaped the table with five freshly killed deer and a goodly supply of coney (rabbit.)

Governor William Bradford and others record that seethed (boiled) lobster along with a great stores of cod, bass, and other fish rounded out the savory list of entrees for the three-day feast. Next year, before you succumb to hefting those pen-raised, rotund frozen gobblers icing inertly in the supermarket, you might try keeping the Pilgrims’ tradition with a more free-ranging selection of main dishes.

At least so have suggested the late food critic James Beard, various chefs at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant, and their friend George Rude. Ride down Bunker Hill Road in Griggstown just to where it joins Canal Road any autumn and your auto will probably startle to a stop before a colorful ringnecked pheasant strolling the roadway. Then another, and another until you become suspicious. The mystery is soon solved by a small sign in a blind drive announcing "Griggstown Quail Farm." If your gastro-curiosity gnaws greater than the press of your schedule, you will turn in and learn a great deal.

Parking in the gravel drive, before the little red farm store, visitors behold the 75-acre spread of George and Joan Rude on which they annually raise 35,000 pheasants, 70,000 quail and 150,000 chickens. Scratching around the several vegetable patches one may spy mallards, muscovy duck, partridge, turkeys, and perhaps even one of the four rogue two-ton beefalo which, as Joan laughs, "are out there somewhere and we still can’t catch." The Rudes’ farm holds the position as prime supplier of fresh game birds to most of New York’s fine restaurants, to major wholesalers like D’Artagnan Inc., and to a host of markets throughout the tri-state area and New England.

"The great thing about George," notes his wife, "is that he is never afraid to try something he knows nothing about." Growing up in Belle Mead, Rude’s only experience with game birds was sighting them through a hunting rifle. After high school in Somerville and a stint in Vietnam courtesy of the U.S. Army, Rude returned home and tried his hand at landscaping. In l973, when the lawncare market flattened, he signed on with Peter Josten and Stephen Spector to tend the cows on their Canal Road farm.

"We kicked around the idea of raising mink and perhaps a few pheasant to sell to local hunting clubs," recalls Rude. But one day James Beard, then a food critic for the New York Times, complained to his friend Josten that all the game birds served in New York restaurants came frozen. Lights went on. Josten introduced Rude to Beard, who introduced the young hired hand to the head chefs of the Four Seasons and Lutece restaurants. Rude confidently launched the first business he knew nothing about.

"We started out with only 12 quail," Rude remembers, "which Beard took into his own home cooking school and showed the restaurants. They couldn’t get enough of them." Within a few seasons, Rude was driving his station wagon filled with 100 pheasant and 200 quail through the streets of Manhattan, stopping at Windows on the World, La Primavera, Le Chantilly, La Cote Basque and others. From the beginning, Rude faced virtually no competition. Fresh birds raised 52 miles from the kitchen, delivered weekly — it seemed he had found the perfect upscale entrepreneurial niche.

New York’s effete high end restaurants loved this disarmingly forthright farmer who minced no words and kept every promise. Besides, as Rude puts it, "every head chef wants his own farmer. He will dismiss a food distributor at the back door, but if the farmer calls, he’ll turn off the fire, lay aside the pan, and come see me immediately."

Rude worked a deal with area high schools where students could work after school to gut and prepare the birds for course credit. Joan Rude, after a full day of teaching fourth graders in Hillsborough, would join her husband in the endless circuit of farm chores. One reason the Rudes face so little competition is that game farming is such darned hard work. "Even after all these years, it’s really scary and undependable," admits George.

On any summer’s day, the sky above Griggstown Quail Farm swarms with a dozen or so hungry hawks and turkey buzzards looking to gobble up Rude’s profits. For the farm’s 35,000 pheasants, the cycle begins in April when the eggs are selected and set into the massive incubator. Hatched and bred on site, they remain cozily protected until mid-June or July, depending on weather. At this point, they are ushered out into the real earth, where for their final 18 weeks they face predation, infighting, storms, and all the problems to which feathers and flesh fall heir.

To keep his birds as close to truly free ranging as possible, Rude’s pheasants roam within circus-tent-like pens, confined only by vast two-inch mesh nets, held aloft by stanchions. It is an amazing sight. Spread across the landscape are several dozen 300-by-50-foot pens that allow each bird to fly, exercise, squawk incessantly, and scratch for natural foods supplementing the pound a week of grain each consumes from the feeding trough.

But with this relative freedom comes risk. A good trouncing rain will smash young limbs and feathers, drowning great numbers of birds in the mud. Those circling hawks are joined by ever vigilant owls, neighboring cats, ‘coons, and dogs searching for a tear in the netting. Foxes and the occasional coyote can find their way under netting and destroy birds like, well, a fox in the hen house.

The birds themselves are scarcely sheepish one to another. Each bird must be laboriously fitted with a peeper — a miniature set of plastic goggles that allow it to see only peripherally. This 14-cent device hopefully reduces the number of deadly, in-your-face combats among these very aggressive birds.

And then, of course, there are the escapees. Rude’s birds do not have their wings clipped and will frequently take a flyer through any hole they can find. "They never go far," notes neighbor Helen Marie Chapman. "We either just heave them back over the fence or sometimes we go and present the lost soul back to George." How many are out running around? Joan Rude shakes her head, "Oh good Lord. Thousands." The free range farmer leads not a simple life.

By mid-September the 24-week old pheasants are ripe and ready. The hens now plump out at two to two and-a-half pounds with the roosters weighing in at three to three and-a-half. The seven members of Griggstown farm crew enter the nets and wander the mud, madly stuffing the birds into cages and hauling them over to the small processing plant.

Far from the atmosphere of slaughterhouse horror one might expect, Griggstown’s processing shed stands as an immaculate, six-station line where 500 birds an hour do indeed meet their well plucked ends by a swift, incredibly sanitary method. Wrapped and iced, the birds are then delivered.

When at last Rude lays his pheasants on the block and receives his $15.50 each from the restaurant or wholesaler, he has earned it. His pheasants have gobbled up 18 tons of grain for each of the past 18 weeks. He has spent $5,000 on peepers alone, and several thousands on pen and incubator maintenance. He has had no days off.

While his land receives a farm tax credit, each of his structures and pieces of equipment are taxed at the homeowner’s rate. "I pay a school tax not only on my home, but on each of my barns," he says. "The farmer is always in debt."

Today I gather with the Rudes in their office where Joan shoos one of the dogs off the couch and offers me a seat. "It’s a good life," nods George, leaning back at his chair and staring up at the innumerable deer heads and other trophies staring down on us from the wall. "The business is very successful, but we’re not rich folks making some six-figure income. On the other hand, Joan gets to ride her horses around the farm and I get to do something I enjoy every day."

"And you also get to go bear hunting every year in Alberta," his wife adds. It all seems very down home and earthy, but it in no way masks George Rude’s razor sharp business acumen. In l992 he bought out Griggstown Quail Farm from Josten and has since then followed an aggressive campaign of expansion into new markets with new products. Experimenting with breeds, Rude shifted to the larger Chinese and Mongolian ringneck varieties of pheasant and eschewed the bobwhite for the plumper Japanese quail.

Mallards and muscovy ducks were added as was an on-site hatchery and breeder. New lines, new knowledge. Partridge were imported as chicks from a New Egypt farm. With the introduction of chickens, Griggstown’s processing plant had to fit USDA standards. (Game birds, unlike chicken and turkeys, do not require federal inspection.)

The USDA inspector, like a rabbi in a kosher house, oversees the entire process and examines each bird. Yet the added effort has paid off particularly with the highly favored poussins — 24-day-old chicks whose delicately tender 18 ounces increasingly grace the plates of finer restaurants.

Three years ago, Rude brought in the turkeys. Not only the standard whites, but the select Red Bourbon breed with darker meat that is as close to the Pilgrims’ wild turkey as any alive today. Despite a $5.95 a pound price tag, more than double the cost of the whites, they are the first to go come the holidays, notes Rude.

Beating the Butterball

So is a bird really just a bird? Or does the Griggstown Farm lifestyle make a tastier, healthier proffering for your holiday guests?

"It is the difference between a Mercedes and a Suzuki," insists chef Matt Sytsema, who has recently signed on as the latest addition to Rude’s retail team. "Those frozen giveaway birds at the supermarket have been raised in pens and fed hormones. Here, the birds run around, scratch for a variety of food, and get exercise that gives them more muscle and less fat."

Sytsema dismisses the myth of game birds’ meat being strong and stringy, believing that the more flavorful flesh can achieve any desired texture with marination and a lower cooking fire.

A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Sytsema has labored in the kitchens of the Ryland Inn, the four-star restaurant in Whitehouse. Recently this Griggstown native stumbled on Rude’s farm and liked what he saw.

I sampled one of the 200 chicken pot pies he made for the store and it was $12 worth of heaven. Half a bird, about 12 ounces of meat, was baked with carrots, celery, parsnips, fennel, turnips, peas, onions, and crimini mushrooms all in a chi-chi veloute sauce. Under Sytsema’s impetus, Griggstown Quail Farm will soon be making its own pie shells and using its own pumpkin for pies.

Griggstown may not offer four stars, but it does afford its new chef a better bird. "A cook can only be as good as his product, and this is the best I’ve found anywhere," says Sytsema.

Beyond its obvious taste benefits, the exercising outdoor animal sheds much of its own healthy lifestyle into its consumer. Daniel Jass, an Ewing-based family physician with a sub-specialty in nutrition and preventative medicine, agrees with Sytsema’s Mercedes/Suzuki poultry analogy from a nutritional standpoint, but with certain caveats.

Jass’s research supports the currently untrendy view that no major food group is wholly poisonous and to be avoided, but rather that our ancestors hit the nutritional mark a little closer with a more balanced plate. Scarcely a cubicle-confined researcher himself, Jass’s lean form can be seen racing his bicycle daily all over central New Jersey, testing first hand the dietary fuels he prescribes.

"If a bird is truly free ranging, scratching over undeveloped land with a variety of insects and plant life, it will have not only less total fat, but a much smaller percentage of saturated fat," says Jass. "Additionally, the bird will be rich in Omega 3 oils — all the beneficial attributes we give to fish." However, very few birds, even those of Griggstown Farms, are totally free ranging. And the "Free Range" label on a supermarket product can be woefully misleading. When questioned where their free birds range, growers often answer Jass, "Why, they have the entire range of our silo floor."

Garbage in means garbage out, insists Jass. You can sweat your birds on a treadmill, but if you feed them only grain and hormones, their fat will still have the same high percentage of saturates as their caged fellow fowl.

Why a Duck?

Ducks, geese and other waterfowl have taken a bum nutritional rap as "fatty," thus unhealthy birds. Both the AMA and the American Academy of Sciences have backed off from this fat-free stance and ask consumers to take a more discerning look. The natural fatty oils in free ranging ducks affords its host a variety of monounsaturates and Omega 3 oils — the same as in the much touted salmon. So when scratching around for holiday meats, don’t be afraid to sample the dark side.

Yet alas, none of these recipes or festive dishes will satisfy if you bring to the table the wrong taste in your mouth. We all face a deluge of highly hyped fear and seasonally stressing obligations that must be shed before we truly can become thanksgiving celebrants. As Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in 1621 when but half of his colony had barely survived, "And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Happy Thanksgiving.

#h#Suppliers#/h#

Griggstown Quail Farm, 986 Canal Road, Princeton 08540. George Rude, owner. 908-359-5375; fax, 908-359-9414. Home page: www.griggstownquailfarm.com.

Rudy’s Game Bird & Poultry Sales, 909 Route 601, Skillman 08858. 609-333-8858; 609-333-8857. Peter Rude, the brother of George Rude, works with George at the Griggstown farm and also has this wholesale business.

House of Meat, 2624 Quakerbridge Road, Hamilton Township 08619. Alaa Rashad. 609-689-3030. Geese, ducks, rabbits.

Lee’s Turkey Farm, 201 Hickory Corner Road, Hightstown 08520. Ronny R. Lee, owner. 609-448-0629; fax, 609-448-3498. Over 2,000 farm fresh, oven-ready turkeys annually.

Simply Grazin’ Organic Farm, 182 Van Dyke Road, Hopewell 08525. Mark and Karen Faille, owner. 609-466-8504. Home page: www.sforganic.com. Chickens, beef.

Stoltzfus Poultry, 4437 Route 27, Kingston Mall, Box 827, Princeton 08540. 609-497-0636. Game birds, chickens, and turkeys.

Wild Oats, 255 Nassau Street, Princeton 08540. 609-924-4993. Www.wildoats.com. Geese, ducks, free-range chickens, venison burgers.

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