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photo credit: melystu

If you remember turkey tasting differently when you were a child, that’s because you were eating a different bird. Turkeys used to come in a panoply of sizes and colors, from sturdy, rufous Bronzes to blinding White Hollands to black-and-white Narragansetts with feathers like dazzle camouflage. They all derive from native North American wild turkeys bred with domesticated European turkeys (themselves originally derived from Mexican breeds). Among the great lineages stand the Jersey Buff, the Bourbon Red, and the Standard Bronze turkey. But in the 1960s these varieties gave way to the fast-growing Broad Breasted White, now found everywhere and so overbred it is incapable of carrying its own weight, much less flying or mating naturally

For the last 40 to 50 years, most of us have eaten these same sad creatures year in and year out rather than birds that have the freedom to grow naturally, live heathy lives, andscratch around the farmyard eating insects. The difference isn’t just visual–in 2008, Ayrshire farm conducted a blind taste test with 70 volunteers trying out meat from the Broad Breasted White as well as eight heritage breeds, as reported in Mother Jones. When it came to flavor, texture, tenderness, aroma, and appearance, the clear winner was the Midget White, a more recent breed, followed by the Bourbon Red, which has been around since the late 1800s.

So why keep buying the same thing? Turkeys are a living connection with America’s past (even if the pilgrims ate eel instead of turkey on the first Thanksgiving), and they’re worthy of celebrating with humane treatment and handling that can literally keep alive the flavors and cuisines of our forebears. The threat of extinction is real–because of the Broad Breasted White’s domination, many of these heritage varieties are maintained by a small number of poultry handlers. By purchasing them, you maintain the market for these birds and help farmers keep up breeding populations.

Because of their limited number, of course, it’s important that you order early. At Smarter Living, we’ve prepared a primer on choosing your turkey with links to shopping sites. But check first for birds near you—you’ll find directions to your local farmers’ markets as well as recipes, seasonal produce and more at Smarter Living’s Eat Local directory.

Sure, you’ll pay more than for a factory-farmed bird, but it’s a once-a-year expense that enhances the survival not only of historic breeds but also of American lifeways–including traditional recipes and family farms. Among these recipes, local food entrepreneur Chef Peter Hoffman has provided his “Heritage Turkey with the Three Sisters“ and accompanying “Beet and Cranberry Relish.”

To end on a celebratory note, at the Life@50+ AARP conference Gray is Green raffled off three heritage turkeys. We’re happy to announce that the lucky winners were Cathy Morgan, of Medway, Massachusetts; Geraldine Mungin of Huntersville, North Carolina, and Gwenette Jackson, Vallejo, California. We hope they enjoy the birds and that all of you have a chance to savor the fall harvest!