This November, Santa Cruz families large and small will gather together for that beloved American holiday, Thanksgiving. Steaming pies will be cooling on the counter, rich gravy thickening on the stove and even if cousin Amanda isn’t speaking to her football-obsessed husband or your teenage son is sulking at the kiddie table, it will all seem worthwhile as you carry in the golden, fragrant centerpiece of the meal, the Frankenturkey. Um…what?
According to Roger Mastrude, President of the Heritage Turkey Foundation in Capitola, 99.9% of turkeys sold in the United States are Broad-breasted Whites, a specimen selectively bred over decades to create an animal unknown in the natural world and certainly not around to greet the pilgrims. Just as Frankenstein’s monster began in an effort to create the perfect human life, so-called Frankenturkeys are the result of the agribusiness’ attempt to provide the perfect turkey dinner on legs – heavy on the breast meat without all that bothersome dark meat from the extremities. The results are birds so physically top heavy that they can’t fly, can barely walk, and can no longer mate naturally. Ironically, another consequence is white meat that is frequently dry and flavorless, leading large producers to inject their turkeys with a flavored saline solution to keep it moist. And you thought your sister’s oyster stuffing was scary.
Now pause and give thanks for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALCB), a national, nonprofit organization that protects genetic diversity in livestock and poultry through conservation of endangered breeds. In 1996-97 the ALBC conducted a national census to determine the status of heritage turkey varieties. These are ancestors of the Broad-breasted White, birds such as the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, and Narragansett, identified in the American Poultry Association’s Turkey Standard of Perfection in 1874. Based on their findings, the ALBC began a campaign to bring back heritage varieties that were close to extinction.
“They were down to like 500 Bourbon Reds in the United States and other breeds were even rarer,” says Jerry Thomas of Thomas Farm. “The people who had them were getting older and there was a fear they’d be lost entirely.”
Today Thomas is raising close to 40 Bourbon Reds on his Aptos farm alongside flowers, vegetables and fruit. On the day I visit, the rotund birds are in fine form, fanning their tails like peacocks as they strut over to gobble at their admirer. Several hens (female turkeys) perch in nearby trees and one wings over our heads from the top of the enclosure. I feel a twinge of guilt knowing that most of these beautiful animals will be eaten within a month or two for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
“In order to save them, you have to eat them,” Thomas explains. “There has to be a market or they’re just a novelty.”
Mastrude is helping to create that market, working with California farmers, stores and restaurants to increase awareness that these traditional breeds are a delicious, all-natural alternative for ecologically-sensitive consumers.
Heritage turkeys have a much richer flavor according to Thomas, because they’re allowed to physiologically mature the way they should. While most Broad-breasted Whites are brought to market at 16 to 17 weeks, the more slow-growing heritage turkeys take 24 to 26 weeks to reach the same weight.
“They get more of what is called a finish, a fat transfer within their body, so there is more fat in the meat as well.” Thomas says. “You get a much juicier and more flavorful product.”
Locals who have tasted heritage breeds say they’re worth the wait. “My first heritage turkey was the best turkey I’d ever tasted,” enthuses Slow Food leader Kimberly Wright. “I love the fact that it has a little more fat on it, so it practically bastes itself. If you’re one of those people that’s into the skin, you’re going to be very happy.”
“They have a much richer, more intense flavor,” agrees Randy Ratto. “Some people think they’re gamey, but I’ve never found that.” (Yet an article in this month’s Cooking Light magazine warns that the strong flavor of heritage breeds might not appeal to children.)
This year, Wright will be purchasing her Bourbon Red from TLC Ranch in Watsonville, one of several local, independent farmers who give their flocks plenty of space to move.
“The heritage breeds require a lot more room because they move around so fast and they’re allowed to,” Thomas says with a smile. “They’ll jump up and fly 100 feet in a joy type of thing.”
A longer growing season, increased space, and conscientious dietary guidelines make raising these birds an expensive proposition. This holiday season, Thomas is selling his turkeys for $6 per pound at the local farmers markets, more than double the cost of a commercially grown bird. Still, most of his flock is already spoken for by dedicated customers.
“We think that consumers who care about what they eat and how humanely it’s raised won’t find that too horrible a price,” Mastrude contends. “Yes, it’s a lot considering some super markets are practically giving turkeys away. But if independent farmers are to have a prayer surviving raising traditional poultry they need to be able to charge a premium price.”
Still, there’s no denying that heritage turkeys are problematic for retailers, who want to offer their customers a uniform, reliable product. Because the breeds were allowed to drift for decades, no one was selecting them for size, making it difficult to ensure high quantities of larger birds.
“The hardest thing with these turkeys is size,” confirms Paul Bagnasco of Shopper’s Corner, which will carry a limited number of heritage turkeys this year from Mary’s Turkeys in the Central Valley. Owner Mary Pitman is one of the largest independent turkey farmers in California raising free-range, heritage birds.
“We start taking orders in November on a first-come, first-served basis,” Bagnasco continues. “We have to tell people we’ll get as close to their desired weight as possible, but we can’t guarantee it. It’s challenging for us, because we normally sell others that are more consistent.”
Challenges aside, there’s one critical reason to support heritage turkeys. In Birds of a Feather: Saving Rare Turkeys from Extinction, authors Carolyn Christman and Robert Hawes write about the need for conservation of genetic variability. Commercial breeding is focused on a narrow range of bird characteristics, leading to a decline in biological fitness and decreased resistance to viruses and bacteria. As they write, “These populations may lack the genetic diversity they need to be sustainable over the long term.”
In other words, turkey dinners might just become a holiday memory unless we all start gobbling up these heritage breeds.
Where to Buy a Heritage Turkey
Shopper’s Corner in Santa Cruz, 423-1696
At the Thomas Farm booth at the Westside, Eastside, Downtown, and Cabrillo College Farmers Markets, 724-4013
TLC Ranch in Watsonville, (209) 505-4558
For a list of companies that sell heritage turkeys via mail-order and Internet, log on to www.localharvest.org or www.slowfoodusa.org and click on the “Ark of Taste” icon.