Wednesday, November 21, 2012

National Thanksgiving Turkey 'Cobbler' Heads To White House For Big Day With President Obama

Virginia turkeys were raised by family farmers for Cargill, and stayed at a luxury hotel before the annual pardon ceremony in the Rose Garden...
UPDATE: The Presidential pardon ceremony
The two Toms competing in the White House contest to be the National Thanksgiving Turkey held their first and only "press conference" on Tuesday afternoon, meeting journalists with wings flapping and wattles wobbling during an hour of fun in the rooftop POV lounge at the W Washington, DC hotel.  Cobbler and Gobbler, raised by farmers Craig and Nancy Miller on their Miller Farm in Rockingham County, VA, may look like identical giant white snowballs, but only one will share the Rose Garden stage with President Obama for the official pardon ceremony at 2:00 PM today. (Above:  Gobbler, l, and Cobbler)

The White House will livestream the big event, which comes hours after the President returns from a four-day trip to Asia.  Both Toms are 19 weeks old and weigh more than 40 pounds each.  Cobbler had gotten more votes by 8:00 PM ET on Tuesday night, the official close of polling for the 'Thanksgiving Decision 2012' contest on Facebook, garnering 2,016 "Likes" to Gobbler's 1,767.  UPDATE: Cobbler will be the National Thanksgiving Turkey, the White House announced at 9:00 AM.

Gobbler will be the alternate Tom, and both birds will be spared the fate of the holiday plate.  Though the polling was 'officially' over last night, the public this morning could still click the Facebook link to "Like" either bird, in a holiday version of ballot stuffing.

Hatched on July 13 at a Cargill Retail Meat Solutions, Inc facility in Harrisonburg, VA, the "Turkey Capital of the World," the birds are the Top Toms from a Presidential Flock that started with forty chicks and was reduced down to ten by this weekend when they were finally selected to travel to Washington for their big day.  The birds lived in a converted barn dubbed the "Turkey Palace" by the Millers, who were thrilled to be charged with their important duty.  (Above, the Miller family with the birds: From r, Nancy, Craig, daughter Kelsey and son Chase)

The husband and wife team will mark their 25th wedding anniversary next month, and Craig Miller has lived on the family farm "for more than fifty years."  The turkeys "had it good," he said.

"It's just a real honor," said Mr. Miller.  "A once-in-a lifetime experience to raise the President's turkeys."

The National Turkey Federation, which has orchestrated the White House presentation for 65 years, asked the Millers to raise the Presidential Flock last February; Board Chairman Steve Willardsen is president of Cargill.

"It was a no brainer when we got that call," Mr. Miller said.

He said he and his wife are some of the few Obama supporters in their very GOP county in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, and they had indeed received pushback from neighbors for agreeing to take on the project.  Virginia was a highly competitive battleground for the 2012 election race, with President Obama and Mitt Romney devoting large amounts of time to wooing Commonwealth voters.

"It's a shame that it got political," Mr. Miller said. "There were negative  comments and the like.  We tried to ignore it.  This is for the President of the United States, and turkeys aren't political."

Both Millers are looking forward to meeting the man they voted for at the White House.  "We want to thank President Obama for all he's done," said Mrs. Miller.

While turkeys may not be inherently political, they are big business, with about 46 million--minus Cobbler and Gobbler--headed for Thanksgiving tables on Thursday.  Cargill is the third largest turkey producer in the US, employing thousands of people at nine facilities nationwide, in addition to farmers.  The Millers raise three flocks of hens each year for the company, housing the 43,000 birds each time in two air conditioned barns that are 50 feet wide by 800 feet long, and "computer controlled" for climate, said Mrs. Miller. 

Cobbler and Gobbler and the Presidential Flock are all Toms.  Male birds of their size are typically used for deli meats and "carving stations," Willardsen told reporters at the press conference.  They were raised on a diet of primarily soy and corn, but during their VIP stay at the W hotel were "gobbling up" organic greens and grains, said W general manager Ed Baten.

"They've been good guests," Baten said. "We haven’t had any noise complaints from their neighbors."

The W is always pet friendly, and has hosted the famous turkeys headed for the White House each year since 2010.  The birds stay in a meeting room that's been tricked out as a turkey sanctuary with furniture removed and shavings on the floor, though the hotel winkingly informs the public that the feathery guests will be in a deluxe suite typically offered to dignitaries.

Cobbler and Gobbler could live as long as eight years, according to Bob Evans ("just like the restaurant, yes"), the Cargill veterinarian who was present when they were hatched in Harrisonburg.  Like the Millers, he is very fond of the Presidential turkeys, who are currently the equivalent of teenagers, he said.  Acting as the Turkey Whisperer, Evans wrangled the birds at the press conference, and repeatedly explained which was which to reporters confused by their similar looks.  He has visited the birds daily since their birth, not just to monitor them medically, but because he has a real affection for them. (Above, Evans with Gobbler, l, and Cobbler)

"Birds this size, usually they'll chase you around," Evans said, laughing, but Cobbler and Gobbler like human contact, and were totally calm as they were surrounded by the press.  They had weeks of special training to get ready for their important day with the President, Evans said, including being exposed to loud music, flashing lights, and lots of human contact.

"Gobbler will give me little kisses," Evans said, but yes, he will be eating turkey on Thanksgiving: "It's the perfect protein."

The White House spotlighted the birds' different personalities for the contest:  "Cobbler and Gobbler may look alike, but they're no birds of a feather," read a post on the White House blog.

"Cobbler craves cranberries, is known for his strut, and enjoys the musical stylings of Carly Simon. Gobbler, a patient but proud bird, loves to nibble on corn and enjoys any music with a fiddle."

The Toms especially appreciated the music of fiddler Eileen Ivers, said the Federation's LeeAnn Jackson; they were big fans of her album "Crossing the Bridge," and would gobble loudly during the song "Bunch of Keys."  (Above:  Cargill's Willardsen poses with the birds as the W's Baten looks on)

After receiving President Obama's pardon, the turkeys will spend the rest of their days at the nationally recognized livestock facility at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, the glorious, historically preserved farm/estate of the first American President, George Washington.  It's located in Virginia, about a half hour from the White House.  The Toms will be featured in the 'Christmas at Mount Vernon' program through January 6, 2013. 

President Obama pardoned North Carolina turkey Courage and his alternate Carolina in 2009;  Californians Apple and alternate Cider and 2010; and Liberty and alternate Peace in 2011.  Liberty is still at Mount Vernon, but Peace was euthanized on Monday after an illness, the Huffington Post reported. (Above:  Photographers surround the turkeys at the press conference)

*Related:  Click here for the 2012 Obama White House Thanksgiving menu and recipes. 

*The President's 2012 Thanksgiving Proclamation

*Photos of by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama