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November 22, 2012

Not your grandfather's Thanksgiving Day bird

Modern-day turkeys pack more breast meat but may be less tasty than old-time varieties

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.

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