Each Thanksgiving, 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten. Chances are, the turkey that you will be enjoying on Thanksgiving is a typical white broad-breasted turkey bred to develop as large a percentage of white meat in as little time as possible. Large scale agriculture is all about profit: raising animals having the largest volume of meat in the shortest amount of time. Usually there is little to no consideration on the quality and taste of the product. Only recently have sustainable agriculture advocates and preservationists been able to bring awareness of heritage breeds to the table...literally. Heritage breeds are what we ate before the push to raise animals quickly and cheaply became mainstream. According to Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Breeds USA in Brooklyn New York, “the heritage breed reflects man’s best attempt at a good tasting turkey. The white broad-breasted represents man’s attempt to produce a turkey that lives indoors and grows quickly.”
Many people may be disturbed to know that their broad breasted turkeys cannot reproduce on their own without the help of artificial insemination. Their body shape prevents this from occurring naturally and because they gain so much weight so quickly, oftentimes, these birds, if left to grow older, would not be able to walk or stand as their legs would be unable to support their own body weight. With many more people questioning where their food comes from and how it was raised, the door has been opened for heritage breed turkeys to make a comeback. With names like Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish and White Holland, these old-time turkeys have a distinctive rich taste, more dark meat and certainly more flavor.
Purchasing these breeds sometimes costs twice that of a pasture-raised broad breasted turkey and there is a good reason for that. While the standard turkey takes 18 weeks to reach market size, heritage turkeys take 24-30 weeks. Not only is it more costly to raise them but they are more time-consuming as well. Because they have more of the instincts of the wild turkey, they want to fly unlike their sedentary and weighted cousins. Still, even with the high costs to the consumer, farmers barely profit from selling these birds. Burgeoning consumer demand for these breeds are being met by some small farms. Heritage Breeds USA sold approximately 800 heritage turkeys in 2002 and are expecting to sell about 8000-10000 by mail order this season. If you are looking for local resources, places where you can actually visit and see your heritage turkeys develop, grow and lead a happy existence (for at least a few months), you have only three choices. Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills raises Bourban Red turkeys that sell out quickly, usually to membership holders. Upstate in Germantown, New York, Peter Davies at Turkana Farms raise Bourbon Reds, Spanish Blacks, Royal Palms and Narragansetts, slaughtered three days before Thanksgiving and delivered to NYC or to be picked up at the farm. “There’s a difference in taste with heritage turkeys because it takes longer to reach market size and they get lots of exercise” states Mr Davies who also obtains organic grains to feed his birds from the nearby Lighting Tree Farm in Millbrook. Heritage turkeys are so succulent that there is no need for brining and you cook them like any other turkey. This rare commodity in the Hudson Valley usually sells out locally by October, however, you can purchase them from Heritage Breeds USA which obtains their turkeys from two farms in the midwest.
Heritage meats can still be enjoyed beyond the Thanksgiving table. Peter Davies states that the Christmas goose, an Old World tradition, is also becoming a popular choice. It has the texture and consistency of beef rather than poultry and cooks just like a turkey. Turkana farms offers a Toulouse Geese available for Christmas and offers wonderful recipes on cooking your bird. We plan on making a Christmas goose again this season. Don't forget to collect the "liquid gold" or goose fat to use in the coming months. Sublime when eggs or potatoes are cooked with it!
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