Thanksgiving is coming up quick and it's time to start thinking about all the fixins' and the main event—the turkey. This year, think about committing to a Heritage turkey instead of your normal supermarket pick.
A Normal Bird
So what's wrong with most of those birds you'll find in the supermarket?
Your normal bird (almost all turkeys bred for Thanksgiving are the Broad-Breasted White or Broad-Breasted Bronze variety) are so removed from a traditional turkey that they must be artificially inseminated to reproduce. These birds, all come from one basic genetic line that was developed in the 1950's. In keeping with Americans' preference for white meat, these birds were bred to have extremely large breasts, rendering them so top-heavy that they cannot fly and are barely able to walk. Besides the issues of large scale turkey operations raising turkeys in horrible confinement conditions, many turkeys at the grocery store are injected with a mystery cocktail of basting solution and preservatives to make them weigh more and taste buttery.
So as an eater concerned with cooking up a tasty Thanksgiving meal, why should you care? These turkeys are not bred with eaters in mind, but for the ease of large-scale operations. That extra-rapid development that makes these turkeys so easy to raise and churn out? It also produces bland, flavorless meat that has to be covered with a multitude of sauces, gravies, and sides to be palatable.
A Heritage Bird
In comparison, Heritage Turkeys seem like a whole different animal.
Heritage turkeys still have the ability to mate naturally (with no needles involved). They also grow at a slower, natural rate, and have longer lifespans than their carefully selected and engineered counterparts. This means their meat is richer and more deeply flavored and they generally have more fat than your average bird.
Finding a Heritage Turkey
If you want to forgo the Broad Breasted White or Bronze bird this year, start looking for these breeds: the Standard Bronze, Black, Black Spanish, Slate, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, White Holland, Bourbon Red, Beltsville, Small White, and Royal Palm. All of these varieties qualify as heritage turkeys.
Although interest in heritage breeds has exploded in the past five years, true heritage breeds still make up far less than one percent of the 265 million turkeys produced in America in a given year. They can be difficult to find and probably won't be showing up at your local grocery.
Check with your local farmer or farmers' market organization to see who is raising turkeys this year and if they are raising heritage varieties. Many farmers who just grow vegetables and raise chickens during the rest of the year raise turkeys specially for Thanksgiving.
Because these birds are expensive, you often must reserve and put a deposit on a turkey well before Thanksgiving—in early November or even October. Turkeys can then be picked up on-farm or on the closest farmers' market day before the Thursday of Thanksgiving. If the cut-off date for reserving a bird with your local farmer has passed, don't despair: Many farmers raise extra birds for day-of sales.
And if you can't get you hands on a Heritage or locally raised turkey this year? You can look for major brands like Bell & Evans that raise Organic or pastured, drug-free turkeys. With the emergence of organic-everything on a national level, many national grocery store chains now carry multiple choices for a better turkey, if not a heritage turkey.
Finally, let's address the issue of cost. A uncommon breed of turkey that is raised humanely, with more room to roam and without drugs is going to cost more than a modern, genetically controlled, intensively managed Butterball bird. Period. There's no way to get around it.
But Thanksgiving is a once-a-year event. Think of the extra investment of time and money to get one of these birds as a way to show your commitment to eating more locally and sustainably or to just try out and give thanks for sustainably raised food for just one day. Your choice of a better bird, supports ecological biodiversity, genetic preservation, local economies, and local food.
More Resources for Heritage Turkeys
Like cooking a grain versus a grass-fed steak, you can't treat heritage breeds the same as you would a Butterball. Cookbook author William Rubel, has extensive directions for getting your heritage turkey cooked to bronzed perfection.
D'Artagnan sells organic and heritage turkeys online.
Mary's Turkeys sells organic, free-range heritage turkeys that can be mail-ordered or found at Whole Foods and other natural grocery stores nationwide.
Local farmers who raise turkeys in your area can be found through LocalHarvest.org.