There are only about 2,500 Tamworth pigs left in the United States, and I’ve just braised the belly of one of them. That may sound destructive, but my dinner is actually the Tamworth’s saving grace. The purebred pig is among the 150 heritage or heirloom animals now endangered by the agribusiness’s decision 60 years ago to cross-breed livestock for fast-growing, cheap meat. Now, 123 years after the Tamworth first arrived on our shores, the British breed has been corralled to the edge of extinction by the more than 100 million crossbred swine processed every year. Fortunately, when we buy from small farmers and purveyors of heirloom animals, we help to preserve these breeds, which heritage-meat entrepreneur Patrick Martins calls the “panda bears, spotted owls, and koalas of the food world.”

This unusual animal-rights movement first took off with turkeys. Martins, cofounder of the online food store Heritage Foods USA, helped put heirloom meats on the map when he and co-owner Todd Wickstrom started Slow Food USA’s “Heritage Turkey Project” in 2001. Their mission was to help these disappearing birds proliferate, thereby helping preserve genetic diversity.

Now that diversity is in decline, because agricultural powerhouses like Butterball raise only one type of bird, known as the Broad-Breasted White. Selectively bred for 30 years to have the maximum amount of lean white breast meat, these puffy-chested birds are too top-heavy to walk around or mate. (Even the free-range variety have a hard time ranging.) To perpetuate their flocks, producers of Broad-Breasted Whites must artificially inseminate the oddly shaped animals. Some life.

Over on Frank Reese’s farm, though, turkeys act like turkeys—running, flying, ranging, and mating without human interference. Reese, a small-scale farmer in Kansas, raises five turkey breeds (Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Bourbon Red, and Standard Bronze), selling them through Heritage Foods USA’s Web site and a few local stores.

“There’s a protocol inherent in the definition of ‘heritage,’” says Martins, who wants to ensure that the term does not lose meaning, as the labels “all natural” and “hormone free” have. To be truly heritage, a breed must have a long, purebred lineage in the United States and be raised sustainably, with pastures to roam in, good food, few or no antibiotics, and no help whatsoever in the mating department. Most often heritage animals are endangered, too, though some are simply rare compared to the number of industrial-breed birds.

“To say the meat is organic would just be one small piece of what we’re promoting,” says Martins. Heritage meat also benefits small family farmers like Reese, who can’t compete with “Big Turkey.” Heritage breeds take more time to reach market weight and to reproduce than their crossbred brethren, and time equals money. So why does Reese go to the trouble?

“Because the birds are going to go extinct if we don’t do something,” the farmer explains. “And I knew if people ever tasted them, they would see the difference.”

The difference is definitely visible: the Standard Bronze that I ordered from Reese’s farm had a narrower breast and longer legs than your typical bird—evidence of a healthy life with lots of free ranging. But was the taste discernibly different? Using sage-infused butter, salt, and pepper to flavor the meat—along with a generous stuffing of carrots, onion, and celery—I roasted it beneath a tent of foil, which I took off for the last half-hour so the turkey could brown. The skin wasn’t as crisp as I would have liked, but the meat was juicy and dense and didn’t fall apart the way “regular” turkey meat can. Even better, it required no basting, because the turkey had lived long enough to develop a lovely, rich layer of fat. Unfortunately, though, my group of tasters didn’t notice any difference in flavor.

This could have more to do with the Standard Bronze in particular than with heritage turkeys in general. Galen Zamarra, head chef at New York’s Mas restaurant, tried Bourbon Reds last year and said, “The flavor is out of this world. I served it to many people who don’t care for turkey, and they all were astounded.” He plans on serving Bronzes at the restaurant this year.

Now that Martins and Wickstrom have helped Reese and other farmers get their turkeys on menus and tables across the United States, the Bourbon Red is officially off the critically rare list monitored by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Yet sales of heritage turkeys account for less than 1 percent of the roughly 265 million birds sold by Butterball and Purdue each year. That’s partly because of the costs involved in raising fully documented animals. My Standard Bronze, for instance, came with a tracking number that told me how long it had lived, what it had eaten, and where and by whom it had been processed (a third-generation slaughterhouse owner named Kevin Kopp). These purebred gobblers average $5 to $6 per pound, versus the average $1 to $2 per pound for regular birds. Martins does not believe that prices will drop. “That’s what food costs,” he says. “But no one’s saying you have to eat heritage meat  seven days a week. I don’t.

So Martins caters to consumers who are willing to pony up for the occasional heritage bird, and his mail-order company is now one of a handful of businesses that connect small fowl-farmers with consumers. But after turkey, no meat is selling as well as heritage pork. Unlike lean crossbred pigs, such heirloom breeds as the Tamworth and the Gloucester Old Spot are marbled with fat, the way nature intended them to be. “Their taste is stunningly delicious,” says Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill restaurants in New York, which feature Berkshire pigs on their menus. “The flavor hasn’t been bred out of them.

But taste isn’t the only reason some chefs offer heritage meats. “Being a restaurateur, I have some power,” says Zamarra, who buys his pork directly from Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York. “By making a stand and putting rare meats on my menu, more dollars go toward saving these breeds.” In the process, he’s also educating his patrons. Too many people, he says, don’t know or care where their food comes from. Thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs like Martins and chefs like Zamarra, we’re learning.

Story by Nicole Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006

Heirloom holiday meals
Heritage pork and turkey are a tasty, eco-friendly alternative to your typical roast.