As with most things, with Thanksgiving turkeys, you often get what you pay for. A stroll down the supermarket aisle leading up to Thanksgiving will surely yield up a tempting array of plastic-sealed, inoculated, pre-brined, monster-sized, all-breast-meat, Franken-turkeys for prices so low you have to wonder how they do it. In contrast, offered sometimes at prices around $12 a pound, one really must wonder what all the fuss is about a heritage breed turkey and whether it’s worth it.
The modern turkey, known as the broad-breasted white or broad-breasted bronze, has been bred for the past 50 years for one thing only, massive breast size that can be cooked in minimal time. Of course, the turkeys can’t breed or move around much, or really live much past their estimated slaughter date. Heritage breeds, on the other hand, are amazing, colorful, fascinating birds that still carry the genes of the forest in their rich, flavorful meat.
Some of these breeds, like the Narragansett or the Royal Palm, were originally bred for their brilliant and striking plumage, but as people caught on to their delicious flavor they began breeding for size as well. Back in the day, farmers would keep a flock of turkeys that roamed free over the grounds, foraging for food and breeding naturally. The birds love to eat ticks and other unwanted pests and enrich the soil everywhere they roam. They are close enough to their wild cousins to be capable of flying, and, indeed, like to roost in trees out of reach of most predators.
In the fall, the farmer would typically butcher some of the mature birds, always leaving enough to reproduce over the next season. Thus, a sustainable cycle continued year after year—a cycle in which the birds got to be birds, scratching and pecking, flapping and flying, mating and roosting in trees, and the farmer and his friends got to enjoy the most delicious Thanksgiving meals ever.
Unfortunately, heritage breed turkeys don’t fit into the industrial food paradigm in which we currently live. While a broad-breasted white turkey will reach slaughter weight in 12 weeks and can be raised in total confinement (it can’t move much anyways), heritage breeds take months, sometimes a whole season, to get big enough to eat. If you are paying for feed, every additional week costs you more money, which is why they are priced so far above industrial birds.
Due to this bottom-line way of thinking about our food, heritage breeds are in danger of disappearing completely, leaving us not only stuck in our corporate, industrial, massive-scale and terrifyingly fragile food system, but without the diverse genetics to ever choose otherwise. The more people who care, take the time to understand the situation and decide to put their dollars where their food ethics are, the more farmers will be able to raise these amazing birds.
Last year I had the opportunity to raise a small flock of heritage breed turkeys and then have them slaughtered kosherly with the assistance of a Star K Rabbi. And yes, I cooked one and ate it, and it was delicious. But beyond that, these turkeys really brought home for me what it means to love and steward a species of animal and simultaneously raise them for meat. These turkeys are so colorful and interesting to watch. They make the most entertaining noises, and their vibrant courtship rituals are spectacular.
There are so many considerations in choosing your Thanksgiving turkey: kashrut, price, size, organic, local. Adding this complexity just makes it harder to decide. Yet as the centerpiece of such a visceral and meaningful meal, it makes sense to take the time to do some research and make a decision your family will both enjoy and feel great about.
While heritage breed turkeys can be found on various websites and local farms, if you are looking for a kosher, pastured turkey (not heritage breed, but the next best thing), check out Grow and Behold or KOL foods.