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:
- Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%.
- 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.
- 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.)