Heritage Turkeys

Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall; Braun, pudding and sauce, and good mustard withal; Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best; Pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey well drest; Cheese, apples and nuts; jolly carols to hear; All these in the country are counted good cheer.
Thomas Tusser, 1573

What is now often being called a “heritage turkey” is what poultry breeders call a “standard breed” turkey. A standard breed  is a bird that has been bred to be true to the characteristics of one of the older registered turkey varieties. Examples of standard breeds are the Beltsville Small White, Black, Standard Bronze (see also), Narragansett, Slate, White Holland, Royal Palm (see also), and Bourbon Red. Frank Reese, one of the leading forces behind the American revival of standard breed poultry, and especially the turkey, identifies three qualities that a heritage bird must have: it must be able to breed naturally, live seven to nine years, and grow slowly.

The modern commercial turkey, the Broad Breasted Bronze and Large White, became the dominant bird of American turkey of commerce in the second half of the twentieth century. The Broad Breasted White was selected to produce a lot of meat quickly. The body shape of the bird was altered to promote the development of meat. These birds have shorter breast bones, and shorter legs than standard turkeys. As a consequence, these birds cannot mate naturally — they are bred through artificial insemination — and they have an unusual gait for a turkey. These birds waddle, and mature birds get so heavy in relation to their misaligned bodies, that many cannot walk. These birds are also short-lived. Feather color, like skin color in humans, is nothing more than a superficial characteristic. The Broad Breasted turkey exists in both a white and a brown version – “bronze” – in the language of turkey breeders. To identify a standard-bred heritage turkey one must look beyond feather color to more fundamental issues, in particular the ability to reproduce and both slow growing and long-lived.

Flavor in a bird – or in any animal that we eat – is a product of four factors – the fundamental underlying flavor of its meat, its age, how it was raised, and what it ate. Older animals have more flavor than younger ones. Because heritage turkeys grow more slowly than modern commercial varieties tend to have more intrinsic flavor. This said, turkey is a subtle taste, and it matters a great deal how the animals were raised, and what they ate.

The more an animal moves around, the more interesting its flavor. Thus, turkeys raised on pasture get more exercise than those raised in buildings. Turkeys that eat green grass, plants, and insects have a deeper taste than birds that are raised on an exclusive grain diet. As heritage turkeys are slaughtered at seven or eight months, rather than three or four months for the Broad Breasted Bronze or the Large White, their flesh has more intrinsic flavor, and if they have been raised on pasture, then their flesh will be as fully flavored as it can be.

I do not, however, want to exaggerate the difference in the turkey on ones plate. For that final taste the hand of the cook can obviously be more important than the bird you buy. From my experience what I can say is that the more normally proportioned heritage breeds are pleasure to work with. I have “hung” birds by letting them sit in my refrigerator uncovered for a week before cooking, with a couple turnings per day. The aged birds have always been exceptional.

In buying heritage turkeys I would look to how the turkey is raised over whether it is “organic.”  For animals to be “certified organic” they need to eat certified organic grains. Many farmers find organic grains too expensive to buy as animal feed. I personally feel that the way the animal is raised is more important than whether it is technically “organic.” Look for turkeys that are pasture-raised for substantive portions of their lives rather then turkeys raised in buildings and dirt lots.

The Broad Breasted Bronze and Large White turkeys were developed for rapid growth and a large breast — as the name implies. Standard breeds have a more normal relationship between dark and white meat. This said, the white meat has long been the prized meat from the poultry. This was as true in the 19th century as it is today. I think where the turkey breeding program went wrong was in pushing the breeding for traits that we like so far that they produced birds with impaired lives.

In the late 1990′s the demise of older turkey stocks seemed to be sealed. Plotting the decline in number of breeding pairs of several standard turkey varieties it seemed clear that the trend was leading inexorably to zero. And then, through the innovative thinking of Slow Food USA, a market was developed for varieties of turkeys that were threatened with extinction. Suddenly, what had seemed obvious wasn’t obvious at all. In the strange logic of barnyard conservation, the more you eat them, the more there will be. The revival of heritage turkeys preserves genetic variety, and also keeps alive  American culinary traditions that go back to the first years of English settlement.

Through the demand created by eating heritage bird  several of the standard breed  turkeys now exist again in large enough numbers for the better breeders to begin again the long and careful process of improving the lines. In their long decline, turkey breeders were more concerned with keeping birds that were true to type in terms of their feather coloration than they were breeding for birds that both had good color and were also good for meat production. As we continue to eat heritage turkeys, and thus support the breeders who are at the center of this revival, the quality of the birds will further improve.

Where do the Narragansett, the Bourbon Red, the Jersey Buff, the Standard Bronze, and other heritage turkey varieties come from? Turkeys are native to North America. They grow wild in our forests. But they were also domesticated long before the Spanish conquest. When the Spanish arrived at what is today Mexico, they found domesticated turkeys. They brought turkeys to Spain in 1498 where they were quickly accepted. In fact, turkey was the quickest of the New World foods to be adopted in Europe. By the time the English settlers came to New England in the early seventeenth-century, they were well acquainted with turkeys.

Turkey was established in England by the 1540′s, and by the 1570′s they were raised throughout the country and were already part of the Christmas feast. The quotation at the top of this page by Thomas Tusser from the 1570s is an example of the written evidence we have for the adoption of turkey in sixteenth-century England. The turkey was, in some sense, the poor man’s peacock or swan.

The early English settlers of the 1620s to what is now New England brought turkeys with them, and although they encountered wild turkeys in the forests, they wanted domesticated turkeys for their barnyard. “Tame turkeys” were on the list of expedition supplies requested by the Massachusetts governor in 1628. Domesticated turkeys provide a reliable source of meat throughout the year, and were a fixture in the poultry yard, along with chickens, ducks, and geese. I recently spent time in Romania. Turkeys are still part of the poultry stock of Romanian subsistence farmers. Turkeys are tethered in many yards, and also walk along the sides of roads foraging for food.

In what we would now call a typical post-colonial relationship, even after American independence from Britain the best turkeys were still imported from  England. American turkey breeding program didn’t really begin in earnest until the first decades of the nineteenth-century when American breeders began crossing European varieties with wild turkeys. Up to that point, the American domesticated turkey stock maintained European bloodlines. The revival of heritage turkeys means the revival of turkey varieties that were officially recognized by the American Poultry Association beginning in the 1870s. Conceptually, a standard-bred turkey is like a standard-bred cat, dog, horse, cow, or any other animal for which we humans have created animals with clearly defined characteristics. When an animal – like a turkey – is standard-bred, it means that turkeys interbreeding within that group will breed true to type. Until this revival in producing standard breed turkeys for market turkey breeders, with virtually no exceptions, weren’t also farmers. It will be exciting to see how the heritage turkeys change in the next decades as more small farmers take up raising them and breeding them.

The turkey we eat used to be called the “holiday turkey.” This differentiated this large end-of-season bird from the other turkeys that were eaten. Historically — if one looks back to English cookbooks published in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries — turkeys were eaten for much of the year. From reading early cookbooks it is clear that in the past people were more attuned to the culinary qualities of turkeys at different stages of its life. A young bird with “soft beak and toes” yields tender mild breast meat. An older bird yields a more flavorful roast. Cookbooks often specified small turkeys, even as small as six pounds. In my own experiments with small turkeys I must say that I am now hugely enthusiastic about them and hope that a market will one day be developed for the turkey that is sized like a chicken.

Historically, turkeys weren’t grown to be large just for the sake of the holiday meal. Small producers may find that selling turkey throughout the year will develop a more balanced use for the turkeys so that outside of the holiday season we can buy a whole small bird rather than, as is the case in the grocery I go to, a huge leg and thigh from a previously frozen bird.

Photo Credit: By Curt Gibbs from Long Beach, California (Heritage Turkeys) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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