New England celebrated America’s first Thanksgiving, in Plymouth, but New Englanders have had little opportunity to feast on the kind of turkey that the Pilgrims and their immediate descendants ate — not unless they went turkey hunting.
But thanks to the growing “slow food” and farm-to-table movements and a handful of organizations like the Heritage Turkey Foundation and the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, New Englanders can now buy “heritage” turkeys directly from some local farms, farmers markets and forward-thinking butcher shops — or have one shipped to their homes.
Massachusetts growers of heritage turkeys include Elm Turkey Farm in Dracut and John Crow Farm in Groton, which also sells at several farmers markets, including Newburyport’s.
And heritage breeds are plump and juicy, unlike wild turkeys, which can be scrawny and a bit gamy, though a favorite of some.
But the bird most likely on your table today is the Broad-Breasted White, bred for oversize breasts and quick turnaround from poult to table. It is our modern supermarket turkey and the only breed you’ll get even if you buy an “organic” or “free-range” turkey, unless you specifically seek out a heritage variety.
Heritage turkey breeds are the ancestors of the Broad-Breasted White. Until 1950 or so, they were the breeds everyone grew and what you may remember eating on Thanksgiving if you were around 60 years ago. Today, they are the turkey equivalent of Noah’s Ark in terms of biodiversity. In heritage turkey breeds, and of course in wild turkeys, reside all the turkey genetic diversity we used to take for granted.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines a heritage turkey as one that is reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating. The heritage turkey has a long, productive life span. Breeding hens are commonly productive for five to seven years and breeding toms for three to five years.
Heritage birds also have the ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems. They have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, the same as pre-1950 commercial varieties. Broad-Breasted whites are ready for slaughter in as little as 12 weeks.
Why buy a heritage turkey? Taste, for one thing. Those who have cooked a Broad-Breasted White side by side with a heritage turkey like the a Bourbon Red or Standard Bronze swear by the heritage birds.
Why? Well, for one thing, heritage turkeys maintain a layer of fat absent in the Broad-Breasted White. As the bird cooks, this fat slowly bastes the white meat, which is quite plentiful in a heritage turkey, despite the lack of oversize, genetically modified breasts. This lovely fat layer virtually eliminates the possibility of dry white meat, a common problem with the Broad-Breasted White variety.
Additionally, the variety of the heritage turkey’s diet, which includes grubs and other insects found at pasture, rather than the limited commercial feed fed to industrially raised turkeys, contributes to the rich and flavorful meat of the heritage varieties.
And because heritage birds grow more slowly and are harvested later in their life cycle, they have time to develop the rich flavor we used to associate with roast turkey. There’s no need for the machinations chefs have had to come up with to add flavor to their Thanksgiving birds. Brining, deep-frying, 25-hour sage rubs — all history if you cook a heritage turkey.
Aside from taste, you can feel good about choosing a heritage bird for your meal. Roger Mastrude of the Heritage Turkey Foundation explains:
“Genetic diversity is critical for the maintenance of agriculture. With genetic uniformity comes increased susceptibility to disease and weather fluctuations. The extinction of entire breeds also results in the loss of genetic material for re-establishing flocks should a disaster hit.
“In contrast to heritage turkeys, the modern industrial turkey — the Broad-Breasted White (the Frankenturkey, I sometimes call it) — has been bred only for industrial efficiency, and to provide more white meat. ... Additionally, small family farmers can raise heritage birds profitably, which is good for both farmers and the community.”
While heritage breeds are considered endangered, eating one actually leads to the protection of those breeds. The more consumers request heritage birds, the more farmers will grow them. The more farmers grow them, the less endangered they are.
Most New England farmers grow Narragansetts, Standard Bronze or Bourbon Reds and charge about $5 per pound, compared to the $3.99 a pound you’d pay at a specialty market for “organic” or “free-running” Broad-Breasted Whites.
Other heritage varieties include the Royal Palm, Jersey Buff, Slate and Black Spanish.
As more local farmers begin to grow heritage birds, we can expect the variety of heritage turkeys available for New England Thanksgiving tables to increase.