This Thanksgiving, rather than serving a Broad Breasted White, the factory-farm breed most commonly sold in supermarkets, consider ordering an heritage turkey. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) these vigorous, long-lived Native American birds mate naturally (not requiring assistance), and their slow natural growth rate allows them to develop a strong bone structure and enjoy the great outdoors. They taste better, too, because they get a more varied diet, foraging around. Compare this to their poor factory cousins, which spend most of their short lives fattening up in cages because their undeveloped legs can't support the weight of their enormous breasts.
Two of the most popular heritage breeds, the Bourbon Red and Narragansett, were sold commercially alongside the Broad Breasted White as recently as the 1940s and 1950s. The American Poultry Association also recognizes the Black, Bronze, White Holland, Slate, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm as heritage breeds, and the ALBC recognizes all of the above as well as the Jersey Buff and the White Midget. All of these breeds almost disappeared when the Broad Breasted White took over the market, greatly threatening the genetic variety of turkeys in North America. Ironically, you can save the turkeys by eating one, as renewed demand for these breeds has led to a resurgence in their cultivation.
Where you can get one of these marvelous pedigreed birds? Don Bixby at ALBC says, "Availability varies from region to region, and the demand contracts and expands from year to year, but you can probably still find one." The price will likely be greater than if you were to buy a store turkey, but Bixby says, "It depends on where you are. In New York City, they might be $7 a pound, but if you're in Wichita, Kansas it may be only $2.50."
Local Harvest has a search engine that will help you find small, organic turkey farmers in your area. The Heritage Turkey Foundation, dedicated to protecting the surviving heritage turkey strains and re-introducing them to the American marketplace, lists retail outfits where you can buy a bird. Another good resource for heritage food and small farmers is Slow Food USA, with their wonderful Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT) project. To learn about more Native American foods, see the beautiful new book RAFT: Renewing America's Food Traditions, edited by Gary Nabhan. Even if you can't get your hands on an heirloom turkey this year, you can look at the photos and dream.
Who knows, your local Slow Foods chapter, or members thereof, may even be holding an heritage Thanksgiving feast near you!
Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.