Saving the Heritage Turkey, One Bite at a Time

Feature Stories Fall 2010 Issue

Saving the Heritage Turkey, One Bite at a Time

By Wendy Allen | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

Would you eat polar bear mignon? A finely minced DoDo tartare? Siberian tiger burgers, medium rare? No? How about…turkey? It’s a surprising fact that, while there is obviously an abundance of massive, generic, vacuum-packed turkeys in the frozen food aisle this time of year, there are other turkeys on the verge of extinction—and the only way to save them, is to eat them.

Until recently, I thought only a few varieties of turkey existed: the wild ones that like to dart in front of cars on foggy fall mornings; the occasional colorful tom strutting around a petting zoo or living history farm; and the giant, mass-produced white ones that are often overcooked, but taste nice doused in gravy. In fact, there are many, much older breeds of “heritage” turkey still raised by small farms today, some with unexpectedly fascinating histories reading like adventure stories of survival: The Black Spanish turkey with its ancient genetics dating back to the Aztecs, originally brought to Europe by explorers in the 1500s; the friendly Midget White saved from extinction by a University of Wisconsin professor in the 1970s; a trendy and handsome variety named the Bourbon Butternut, in honor of the breeder’s Kentucky homeland, which was (thankfully) rechristened as the Bourbon Red when the original name didn’t appeal to the public.

The poor Broad Breasted White, the common “supermarket” turkey, doesn’t have nearly so exciting a lineage; in fact, it could be dubbed the villain that sent its brethren to near extinction. Selectively bred to have huge, white meat breasts and mature in only 16 to 18 weeks, these larger turkeys took over in the 1960s, satisfying both the consumer (more white meat) and the industry (more reliable supply).

In the meantime, heritage turkeys with fanciful names like Narragansett, Jersey Buff and Royal Palm have quietly eked through the past three decades, thanks to university farms and hobbyists, and are now making a comeback on small farms, such as Dean and Kim Zimmerman’s Coulee View Farm in Wauzeka, where they raise pastured heritage turkeys.

“They’re fun to have around the farm,” Dean says. “They roam and keep the ticks down, but they also have a lot of personality. They imprint on people and will gobble and follow you around. These birds can fly, and we’ll find them on top of the house or the car…we just shake our heads and pretend we didn’t see.”

Heritage turkeys can mate naturally (the Broad Breasted White cannot), and they have a longer, slower growing period—seven to eight months—which allows them to grow strong bones and organ systems. But despite the higher price due to the longer growing period, what’s the real reason they’re becoming popular again?

“The taste,” Kim immediately answers. “The taste is far superior to the store turkeys. The Whites from the store are dry and have no flavor. Even pastured Whites will have less flavor than a heritage turkey.”

“All turkeys were bred from North and South American wild turkeys,” says Dean, “so all heritage breeds do well in Wisconsin, but the Standard Bronze is the most common for its meat.”

And all that pasture roaming and roof climbing makes for a delicious flavor. “We typically brine our heritage turkey and baste while roasting and it comes out great,” says Kim. “Be careful not to overcook this special bird, no higher than 165 degrees, and the cooking time is shorter too.”

When asked why a consumer should choose a smaller heritage turkey that has less white meat, is harder to find and more expensive, especially when Butterball turkeys are plentiful in the freezer section, Dean’s amused smile is a sign he’s heard this before. “Besides the better taste, it also supports the continuation of the breeds,” he says. “The purpose of turkey production is for food, and if people don’t eat these birds, there’d be no reason to keep breeding them.” Today, all heritage breed turkeys are watched, threatened or critically endangered. So though it seems counter-intuitive—Eat a local turkey, save a breed from extinction.

Because heritage turkeys take longer to mature, place your order with a farmer between February and March; however, most raise extras and may have a few yet unclaimed. Prices range from $3.50 to $6.00 per pound, depending on the breed and whether it’s USDA Certified Organic, organically-raised or non-organic. Some farms also raise pastured Broad Breasted Whites, which, while not heritage, have a shorter growing period for late orders and still support local farmers.

To connect with a local heritage turkey farmer near you, Reap Food Group’s Farm Fresh Atlas is an excellent resource. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website contains detailed breed information, and special thanks to Coulee View Family Farm.

Make locally produced turkey part of your holiday traditions!

Roast Turkey

Cranberry Relish

Wendy Allen is digital editor, copy editor, and a writer for Edible Madison. She reads style guides for fun, believes stories have power, and is fascinated by the evolution of the English languageā€”for better or worse. Her mission: to wrestle the wily comma into submission.

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