Maker: Mary Pitman, Co-owner of Pitman Family Farms
Homebase: Fresno, Calif.
The Scoop: Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and we’re all a little turkey-obsessed. But while most of us only have one turkey to worry about, Mary Pitman has thousands. She and her husband, Rick, own Pitman Family Farms, one of the nation’s largest sustainable, free-range turkey farms. The farm, nestled in the heart of California’s prolific San Joaquin Valley, has been in the Pitman family for nearly six decades, and Mary helps to oversee the entire operation — from nurturing poults (baby turkeys) to supplying nearly 180,000 mature turkeys to supermarkets throughout the country, including many Whole Foods stores, just in time for Thanksgiving.
Mary works at a frenzied pace right through Thanksgiving day, when she wakes up in the wee hours to start personally answering calls to the Mary’s Turkeys hotline from hundreds of flustered turkey bakers.
We grabbed 20 minutes with a very busy Mary in early November to learn about her farm, her family and to talk — you guessed it — turkey.
What makes Mary’s free-range turkeys different?
MP: Well, we give our birds tender loving care from the day they’re born. Our sustainable farm has been in our family since 1954, and not much has changed from how things were done back then. Our turkeys get four times more living area than what you’d find at most commercial turkey farms today. And we feed them a high-protein, vegetarian diet free of preservatives and hormones — that’s vital in growing them into happier, bigger more flavorful birds. People can really taste the difference.
Most of us will have “broad-breasted white” turkey on our tables for Thanksgiving, but you also raise “heritage turkeys.” What are those?
If you want a truly authentic Thanksgiving meal, you’ve got to use a heritage turkey. They’re about as close as you can get to the wild turkeys we all picture the Pilgrims having for that first Thanksgiving meal. They can fly, they breed naturally and they’re really delicious.
What does "making" mean to you?
I’m very passionate about the turkeys we raise, because they’re just turkeys — no preservatives, no glutens, no antibiotics. So to me, “making” means doing things naturally, the way our forefathers did.
Any Pillsbury® products that your family swears by?
Oh, yes! Crescent rolls are the best product ever. I always serve Crescent rolls with dinner. And I grew up with Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. When the weather turns cold here, I love to pop cinnamon rolls in the oven. They’re just so cozy.
I’ll always love the Pillsbury Doughboy. “Doughboy” was a term of endearment for my son Ben when he was young — even though he was a lean guy! [Laughs]
What does Thanksgiving look like at your house?
As with most families, Thanksgiving dinner is the most important meal of the whole year. But while I’d love to be cooking all day, it’s really important to me to be personally answering the hotline. People start calling at 3 o’clock in the morning from the East Coast. I sit with a couple of helpers in my kitchen, and we answer the hotline all day long. It’s actually a lot of fun. People are so shocked when I answer their calls. They’ll say, “You’re not really Mary, are you?”
Any Thanksgiving meal “musts” for the Pitmans?
Since I’m working the hotline, my daughter-in-law makes Thanksgiving dinner. It’s really nice to walk into their home with a delicious meal waiting. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without our Pitman family bread stuffing. It’s such a great recipe, we put it on our website! Pitman Family Recipe
So, do you get to relax in December?
I wish! No, we also raise ducks, geese and chickens, and December gets really busy with the Chinese New Year for our chickens. Honestly, we really never get to relax. But at least once I get through Thanksgiving, the big stress is off.