Heritage Turkeys

A Narragansett Turkey
Photo copyright American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Republished by permission. Photo by Frank Reese, Jr.

The turkeys my parents remember eating when they were young were a lot different that the turkeys we now eat for Thanksgiving. Over the last 50 years our nation’s preference for white meat has encouraged turkey breeders to breed turkeys with ever bigger breasts and shorter legs, to the point that the turkeys can’t even breed on their own anymore. The commercial turkey industry produces our Thanksgiving turkeys with great efficiency – lots of meat at the lowest cost – but at the trade off of an ever narrower breeding stock, and many people say, taste. The older varieties of turkeys had much more flavor, according to those I know old enough to remember them.

What are Heritage turkeys? According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a Heritage turkey:

  1. Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%.
  2. Long productive lifespan: the Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years.
  3. Slow growth rate: the Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in 26 – 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.

Slow Food USA has been encouraging farmers to raise the traditional turkey varieties. On the Slow Food website you can find links and phone numbers to breeders all over the U.S. who are producing Heritage turkeys.

If you are considering ordering one of these turkeys for Thanksgiving, now is the time to do it. (We placed our order yesterday. If you happen to be in the Sacramento, California area, Corti Bros. is taking orders for them now.)

5 Comments

  1. F.S. Cohen

    When I was a small child in the 1930′s, we lived in an apartment house with the window of my bedroom opening to the fire escape.

    On that cold fire escape, the night before Thanksgiving, rested TWO turkeys. They probably weighed 14 lbs each and, in total would give as much meat as ONE of today’s 16 pounders.

    (There wasn’t enough refrigerator space to hold them. I would be wakened two or three times through the night as my mother checked to make sure ” a cat didn’t climb up!”)

    But, oh the flavor! The aroma! The only “flavor enhancing” was done with my mother’s hands as she literally massaged the butter,garlic, and seasonings into the skin.

    The schedule to get both done in time would have done credit to D-Day. (Anyone remember that?!?)

    Even the stuffing had a better flavor with those drippings.

    If you want to get a slight idea iof the difference in flavors, buy a free range organic chicken and compare the flavor to the battery-raised “up to 12% flavor enchanced brine injected”
    products sold as poultry today.

    Oh well, this is one memory that really is better than today’s reality!

  2. Elise

    Hi F.S.
    Thank you so much for your comment. I emailed it to my dad to read who was born in 1930. He completely agreed with everything you said and loved the comment about D-day.

  3. Phil

    Any cooking recommendations on this type of bird? I’ve read two conflicting methods of cooking, one low heat, 275, for a long time by the LA Times, and one high heat at 450 for a short time, by the localharvest website. I’m confused.

    Given that heritage turkeys have more dark meat, the legs and thighs which are exercised more, I would use the lower heat method, after first browning the bird on high heat. I would also cook it breast side down. See our turkeyrecipe for more details. ~Elise

  4. Ari

    I am pretty excited for this year’s thanksgiving. On Wednesday afternoon, my husband and I will be participating in a u-harvest at a local farm that has a few Narragansett turkeys. I feel better knowing my turkey had a happy life, which translates to super tasty meat without all the additives (why must they inject “flavor”???) and modified growth spurts. Thanksgiving will be delicious and environmentally responsible. Yum!

  5. Will

    Here in the UK there is a breed of turkey called a “Kelly Bronze”. They are reared in what seems to be an identical manner to your Heritage turkeys discussed above. Talk about delicious!!!! These turkeys are unbelievable. almost as unbelievable as the price. Last year my 18 lb. turkey cost me 72 GBP or 117.48 USD!!!!!!!

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