Jane Says: This Thanksgiving, Consider a Heritage Turkey

Our food advice columnist breaks down why you should ditch supermarket turkeys this holiday season.

Steer clear of supermarket turkeys. You'll support sustainable farming and get more flavor as a bonus. (Photo: Alice Reece/Getty Images)

Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Why should I buy a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving?” —Shannon Swallow

Buying a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving is a sizable investment of food dollars. In fact, it could run you $7 to $10 per pound compared to 99 cents to $1.39 per pound for your standard supermarket Butterball. Talk about sticker shock.

Well, you are paying for history, and then some. A heritage turkey is an old-fashioned breed such as Standard Bronze (the Thanksgiving bird of choice from the 1850s to about 1940), Bourbon Red, White Holland, Slate, Black Spanish, or Narragansett. These breeds are among those developed over centuries in the United Sates and Europe and identified in the American Poultry Association turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874 (more breeds were added in subsequent editions). You’ll find an excellent, very detailed essay about what defines a heritage turkey here. It’s written in part by master breeder Frank Reese, Jr., who, at his Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, has helped save the birds from extinction.

Like a certified-organic turkey (no antibiotics, 100-percent organic feed, and access to the outdoors), a heritage turkey can be a bit tricky to deal with: Although the flavor is usually superb, the meat can be a little tough and there is not nearly as much white meat as you will see on a supermarket bird. Given all that and the expense involved, why on earth would you bother?

I’ve got a one-word answer for you: diversity. By that, I mean diversity in your diet, but, more importantly, diversity in the food chain gene pool. 

And we need that desperately. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, globally we are losing on average one livestock breed a month. According to the Sustainable Table, 83 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins, for instance, and 75 percent of pigs in the United States come from just three main breeds.

And 99 percent of all turkeys raised in the U.S. are Broad-Breasted Whites. Since the 1960s, when large corporations began to dominate turkey production, growers selectively bred (not genetically modified) Broad-Breasted Whites to produce mostly white meat, which Americans tend to prefer, and to grow fast on a small amount of feed in a short period of time; an average bird, raised in industrial confinement, reaches slaughter weight in about 14 weeks. All too predictably, this has led to top-heavy turkeys with dry, flavorless meat. (The industry’s solution to this? Again, no surprise: The turkey carcasses are injected with solutions that may include fat, broth, water, sugar, salt, or sodium phosphate to render the roasted bird tender and juicy.)

In contrast, heritage turkeys, like any other type of heritage livestock, have a slow-to-moderate rate of growth and are pasture-raised with care on relatively small, sustainable farms. Their long, outdoorsy life means that they have the lean proportions of a wild turkey, so that unlike Broad-Breasted Whites, they can stand, run, fly, and mate naturally, without artificial insemination. Don’t you feel better already?

I sure as hell do. I also like the fact that buying a heritage turkey or other heritage breed product (Berkshire or Duroc pork, anyone?) gives sustainable, small-scale farmers and ranchers a way to create and maintain niche markets. And I also like the fact that organizations such as the Heritage Turkey Foundation, the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Heritage Breeds Conservancy, and Slow Food USA are managing in no small way to rehabilitate the word conservative. Conserving things—animal, vegetable, or mineral—is a good idea, right?

For the past few years, I’ve purchased a heritage turkey from Bill Niman’s BN Ranch and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a supermarket bird. As I wrote two years ago, the expense is about what you would pay for a standing rib roast or a few porterhouses, the turkeys are delicious, and there is no waste. My husband and I got four meals (the main event, turkey soup, plenty of sandwiches, and turkey Tetrazzini) out of that 14-pounder, plus a few quarts of glorious stock to see us through a winter’s worth of soups, stews, and chili. For this year’s leftovers, I’m thinking turkey mole.

Retail outlets for BN Ranch turkeys include Bi-Rite Market, FreshDirect, and the direct-to-consumer vendor Delicious Karma. To find a source of heritage turkeys near you, visit Heritage Foods USA or Chefs Collaborative. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I strongly advise you to call now to pre-order your bird; the overall production of heritage turkeys is very small, and producers sell out quickly.

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