In 1784, Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the national bird of the newly-minted United States, but one glance at the bird that has become our standard for Thanksgiving celebrations can leave you scratching your head at Ben's selection-for the ubiquitous Broad Breasted White, which is to be found on almost every dinner table across the land this time of year, is an ungainly, unattractive prisoner of factory farming that has little to recommend it beyond its inexpensive price.
Once upon a time, however, there were dozens of turkey breeds, gloriously plumed creatures with colorful names such as Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, and Jersey Buff. But factory farming, genetic modification, and massive demand soon reduced these "heritage" turkeys to near-extinction levels. The bird of choice became a top-heavy and fast-growing creation that's unable to fly, perch, or reproduce, and is prone to severe cardiac and respiratory problems.
Thankfully, a coalition of organizations and farmers has banded together to rescue the historical turkey from oblivion. Slow Food USA, the Heritage Turkey Foundation, and the Livestock Conservancy are among the concerned groups that have partnered with small farmers across the country to preserve and promote heritage breeds.
To deserve the appellation of "heritage," a turkey must meet the following criteria:
1. It must mate naturally, with no intervention from humans, and its genetic legacy must be bred naturally.
2. It must live a long and productive life outdoors, free to forage and roam.
3. It must grow at a slow, natural rate. Commercial birds are typically harvested at 14-18 weeks of age, while heritage varieties take up to 28 weeks to mature.
Gobble, Gobble ...
Check with your local health-food or specialty market now, to see if they can order a heritage turkey for you. Or go to localharvest.org for a direct hookup to local farmers!
But what about taste? That's subjective, but tasting panels say that heritage breeds are superior in flavor. Because of their longer lives and more natural feed, heritage turkeys have more fat and firmer flesh, with more "turkey" flavor than their bland counterparts-no brining required.
And by choosing one of these truly traditional breeds, you're promoting animal welfare by purchasing pastured poultry; you're enhancing the environment by supporting small farms; and you're enriching your life by connecting to the sources of your food.
It may take a little more effort and greater expense to obtain a Standard Bronze or a Narragansett for your Thanksgiving feast, but the ecstatic smiles on your guests' faces as they enjoy their first "real" turkey will be more than sufficient reward. Click the links below for two easy leftover recipes starring-you guessed it-heritage turkey.