Tuesday, November 23, 2010

'Bourbon Red' Heritage Turkey

This year, just like the last two years, I will have a Bourbon Red heritage turkey on my Thanksgiving table. It was locally pasture-raised, and bred by a friend at the Farmer's Market. If you have never had a heritage turkey, you are missing out!

What are heritage turkeys, and why would we want one?

For one thing, they are not only very tasty, and they are sustainable! They are capable of walking, running, even flying, and able to breed by themselves. They can lay fertile eggs, and set a clutch of eggs to hatch.

Chefs say that they have much better taste than other turkeys. That is because they are slower to develop, which gives them stronger bones and organs before developing muscle, just as our turkeys did many long years ago. Because there is less white meat (compared to the ubiquitous Broad-Breasted White turkey sold in grocery stores), they can dry out while the longer-cooking requirements for dark meat are met. One solution is to brine the turkey, which I am doing. Another is to add some butter between the skin over the breast and the breast itself. The turkey needs to be covered during cooking with oiled or buttered parchment paper, not foil, except for a brief period near the end to brown the bird. For more information on cooking heritage turkeys: http://www.localharvest.org/features/cooking-turkeys.jsp.
Heritage turkeys have a long and productive life span measured in years rather than weeks, and are very suitable for free-range with a pasture diet and thus meat with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. More than 10 different turkey breeds are classified as heritage turkeys, including the Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate (or Slate Blue), Standard Bronze, White Holland, and White Midget. One thing I have noticed about heritage turkeys besides a handsome sleekness, is longer legs.

The turkey on your holiday table is most likely a Broad Breasted White turkey, selected and bred over the last several decades to be quick and cheap to produce, and to have a meaty breast. "The turkey you'll be eating could never exist in nature. After 50 years of over-engineering, it has morphed into a bizarre, ungainly beast that can no longer run, fly or even lay eggs. And all in the name of progress: what it can do is supply copious quantities of white breast meat at the expense of the dark meat from the leg and thigh." (Source)

The Broad Breasted White (BBW) turkey descends from several domesticated turkeys, which in turn descend from the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. It was originally preferred among similar domesticated turkey breeds because the white pin feathers didn’t show when it was market-ready. (I remember as a youngster having to help remove a few remaining dark pin feathers left from processing before my grandmother could bake the turkey.) 

Now the BBW has been bred to grow quickly (14 to 18 weeks to market), and to have a larger breast. (The breast meat in these birds accounts for 70% of their weight.) “The breeding stock for these birds are owned by just three multinational corporations: Hybrid Turkeys of Ontario, Canada; British United Turkeys of America in Lewisburg, West Virginia; and Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Sonoma, California." (Source)

As cheap as factory-raised turkeys are, there is a downside. They are bred so breast-heavy that most can barely walk, if at all. “They are so heavy that they are completely incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination, and they reach such extreme weights so quickly their overall development fails to keep pace with their rapidly accruing muscle mass, resulting in severe immune system, cardiac, respiratory and leg problems”. Only a few breeding toms are ever kept past the normal 14 to 18 weeks-to-market lifespan, and all factory turkeys are caged in extremely crowded conditions. (Source)

As the BBW turkey became the norm for factory-raised birds, the few remaining breeds of domesticated turkeys began to diminish dramatically. Conservation groups started to take notice, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) in 1997 considered heritage turkeys to the most critically endangered of all domestic animals. 

A census conducted by the Conservancy (1997) found less than 1,500 total breeding birds (out of all heritage varieties) were left in the entire country. Some breeds, such as the Narragansett had fewer than a dozen individuals left; many considered most heritage turkeys to be beyond hope of saving. Thanks to ALBC and groups like Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, by 2008, there were more than 10,000 mature heritage turkeys available for sale at small farms, farmer’s markets, natural food stores and online.

My turkey this year is small, by request, since there is just me to feed... but I can assure you that since it's a heritage turkey, it will be exceptionally tasty and very enjoyable!

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