Why You Should Buy a Heritage Turkey This Thanksgiving
In many American households, there's one person charged with overseeing all matters related to Thanksgiving. This person may or may not be you. But if you contribute just one decision to the holiday planning this year, make it opting for a heritage turkey.
What, exactly, is a heritage turkey? Though it may sound like an item of collectible Americana — something you display alongside Buffalo nickels and President Reagan commemorative plates — the term actually refers to historical turkey breeds. Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Black Spanish, White Holland — these are all heritage turkeys, traditional types whose numbers have been in decline for most of the past century. Lately, though, American farmers have begun reviving the birds, selling them through the likes of Heritage Foods USA and Local Harvest as worthy alternatives to standard supermarket fare. If at all possible, you should get involved. Here are a few reasons why.
These are the turkeys of your forefathers. First, you need to understand what you're getting when you buy a bird shrink-wrapped in Butterball plastic. Those turkeys carried out their lives as pale-feathered, dumpy creatures called Broad Breasted Whites, bred by USDA scientists for maximum meat-producing efficiency (how else can you explain the $2-a-pound price tag?). Noble and courageous they are not. Heritage turkeys, on the other hand, are similar to what you might go out and shoot yourself in the wild, were you the sporting type (and, hey, maybe you are, in which case go nuts). They're what the Pilgrims ate, what you drew by tracing your hand in kindergarten. Heritage turkeys are real turkeys.
|Forget that crap about the Pilgrims; it's all a patriotic publicity-stunt. These are domestic birds - but they can walk, fly (a little) and mate by themselves.|
Dear God, that dark meat. Lovers of heritage turkey argue that the meat is far more flavorful than conventional versions. Personally, I don't notice a huge difference in the white meat, but the dark stuff? It's deep-red, gamy, rich, and beautiful. This contrast is a result of heritage turkeys' more active lifestyles, and the fact that they're given twice as long as conventionally raised turkeys to reach harvest weight. More exercise and slower growth means fuller-tasting leg meat.
Killing them will ultimately save them. Paradoxically, the best way to rescue these disappearing heritage breeds is to eat them (just to be clear, the same is not true for endangered wildlife). Farmers will only invest in propagating these historic breeds if there's a market for them. So, in buying heritage, you're doing your part to keep alive threatened breeds. In order to cook them, but still.
You'll help stop the rise of the superbugs. Many scientists fear that large-scale antibiotic use in livestock will lead to drug-resistant "superbugs" capable of doing serious damage to us humans and our food supply. While conventional turkeys are raised using antibiotics, heritage breeds typically aren't (though you should confirm this with the individual farmer or butcher selling you your bird). Do your part in avoiding a Contagion-style outbreak. Okay, so Contagion was about a virus, but you get the point. That stuff looked pretty bad.
You'll be able to look at yourself in the mirror afterward. Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you knew we had to get to the question of ethics at some point. Conventional turkeys lead pretty sad lives, crowded in close quarters, sometimes too top-heavy to walk, being raced from birth to the slaughter. And while we're not the type to browbeat you into anything, life is much nicer for their heritage counterparts, which get to run freely across actual farmland and whatnot. Seems kinda nice to support the latter on a holiday that's all about giving thanks for the harvest, no?
|The Matrix for turkeys. This isn't living, this is miserable existence.|
"Expensive" is a relative term. A heritage turkey will run you in the neighborhood of $8 per pound, which might shock you if you check out the price of a generic bird (spoiler alert: it's about a quarter of the cost). But keep in mind that Thanksgiving is a special-occasion meal, and viewed another way, heritage turkey is actually a bargain compared to the price of the standing rib roast, prime rib, or leg of lamb that you might splurge on for another holiday meal.
Convinced? Well, if so, you can find heritage turkeys for sale through Heritage Foods USA, Local Harvest, Mary's Turkeys, or at Whole Foods Markets nationwide. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with Butterball.
More pictures and info about Heritage turkey raising HERE.