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Talking Turkey

Hard to find heritage breeds surge in popularity



In the North Carolina mountains, waiting until a line of wild turkeys have crossed a road, single file, is not uncommon. In 1970, only an estimated 2,000 wild turkeys existed throughout the state. Today, however, through hard-line restoration and management methods, the wild turkey population of the state is believed to be more than 130,000. But only a fraction of these will grace Thanksgiving tables.

Most North Carolinians will purchase a frozen ($.39 -- more or less -- per pound), commercially processed, broad-breasted white turkey from their local grocery store in the coming weeks. Some of these will be the frozen, basted turkeys, injected with a mixture of butter or other edible fats, broth, water and "flavor enhancers." A frozen bird is stored below zero degrees while "fresh" turkeys are kept at temperatures of 26 degrees or above. Many of these "fresh" birds were processed in late September and October. Hard-chilled or "fresh not previously frozen" birds, a relatively new category, are kept between zero and 26 degrees.

The broad-breasted white turkey is only a distant relative of the majestic native American wild turkey and became popular by poultry processors in 1970. This bird has been bred for large amounts of white meat, the preferred turkey meat of most Americans, as well as white feathers, which do not discolor the turkey's skin. The drawback of being big breasted is these birds are no longer aerodynamic -- in other words, they can't fly as turkeys do. Wild turkeys prefer roosting in trees, although they make their nests on the ground. Additionally, commercially bred turkeys have short legs, fat bodies and subsequently have lost the ability to mate naturally. The broad-breasted white turkey is the result of artificial insemination.

Between these commercially bred, disfigured turkeys and wild lean turkeys is another group known today as heritage turkeys. These are the historic, pre-1970 farm turkeys with such romantic names as Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Black Spanish, Narragansett and Royal Palm. These are the images in picture books, on china patterns and Thanksgiving collectables: turkeys with colorful plumage, white flight and tail feathers. These turkeys also maintained the ability to fly, raise their own chicks and control the insect population in the barnyard.

The benefit of being raised free is flavor -- an element lacking in commercially processed turkeys. The popularity of injectors and spiced brine blends at Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table speak to this deficiency as does deep fat frying, a method purported to heighten the flavor of the broad-breasted white.

According to Mary Pitman of Mary's Free Range Turkey's of Fresno, Calif., who has been raising heritage turkeys since 2003 and now strictly wholesales to organic food stores across the country (none in North Carolina), the taste among her heritage varieties is "not significant," but the taste of any heritage turkey is vastly superior to the commercially grown broad-breasted white turkey. "Our heritage turkeys are a favorite among chefs," she says.

Many of the North Carolina farmers who grow heritage turkeys only raise 50 or so -- the number which can be processed by two people on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Dean Mullis of Laughing Owl Farm in Richfield, N.C., has been raising heritage turkeys (Bourbon Reds) for the last five years. He says, "It's a lot of work. Turkeys tend to die when they are young since they eat everything. These [heritage] turkeys take 24 to 28 weeks to get a 15-pound hen and a 24-pound tom whereas the commercial processors take only 13 weeks." He further notes the expense of farming these turkeys, and even though he charges $4 per pound, which is only slightly above cost, he knows many people balk at paying that amount for a turkey.

But don't think you can get on his waiting list. Mullis doesn't anticipate a space coming open soon and he cannot increase the number of turkeys he raises.

One of the largest heritage turkey farmers in the United States is Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Ranch in Linsborg, Kan. According to Don Schrider of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, a nonprofit organization which advocates protecting heritage breeds from extinction by increased consumption, Reese increased the number of heritage turkeys on his farm from 0 in 1997 to 18,000 this year. Reese sells his turkeys through the Heritage Foods USA Web sites. With overnight shipping, a 20-pound heritage turkey costs $189.

Schrider said that although it may be too late this year to buy an "intensely flavored" local heritage turkey for Thanksgiving 2007, now is the ideal time to make contact for Thanksgiving 2008. He says, "Farmers need to know how to plan, and if you tell them before February 2008, you are much more likely to get a turkey." The ALBC keeps a list of heritage turkey farmers, voluntarily updated by the farmers. The ALBC will e-mail this list upon request:

North Carolina, one of the largest producers of turkeys in the United States, still has only a handful of heritage breed turkey farmers. A few of Charlotte's local grocers are taking orders for organically raised and pasture-fed broad-breasted white turkeys, but if the demand for the historic breeds continues, buoyed by chefs and such consumer groups as Slow Food, more grocers will order heritage birds. "This year we added Wegmans [a Nebraska grocery store chain] to our list," Mary Pitman noted.

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