too many words by laura lemay

turkeys of a better breed

I went to Whole Foods a couple weeks ago and came home with a turkey reservation. I hadn’t planned to get a turkey this year because we were going to a potluck t’giving dinner with friends and there would be turkey there. And besides, its just me and Eric in the house, and Eric is vegetarian. The thought of having to eat a big old turkey all my myself is kind of overwhelming (turkey leftovers until JULY). They’re making little itty bitty miniturkeys now, which are easier to handle than the twenty pound frozen cannonballs you normally see at this time of year, but at any rate I was figuring on giving the whole thing a pass.

But then I saw that WF had heritage turkeys on the menu. Hmmm.

Here’s the scoop: the common market turkey, a variety imaginatively called the “Large White,” is a product of years and years of industrial breeding. Buyers prefer white meat, so turkeys have been bred with these enormous breasts (giant! turkey! gazongas! er…sorry). Those turkey breasts are so huge that common turkeys can’t fly, can barely walk, and they can’t breed on their own — they have to be artificially inseminated. And of course there’s the standard story of turkeys being so stupid they stand out in a rainstorm and look up into the rain and drown. Compare and contrast with the wild turkey I saw wandering across my lawn a couple of times last year, which was positively svelte, fast, and smart. I’ll bet that turkey has no problem getting laid (or coming in out of the rain).

The common turkey is snow white because white feathers mean white skin and paler meat, also preferred by most turkey buyers. Its a fast-maturing turkey, meaning more of them can be bred and killed in time for the holiday rush. Unfortunately, the common turkey is also pretty much tasteless. And, like most poultry breeding in the US, most turkeys are raised in huge packs in enormous industrial farms and crowded conditions and dosed with huge amounts of antibiotics to keep the poultry diseases that result from overcrowding from killing all the birds before they can be sold. Yum. Organic free-range turkeys solve many of the ethical issues, of course, but you’re still starting out with the velveeta of poultry. Bland, processed, engineered holiday food product.

I first heard about heritage turkeys five or so years ago when I got a membership in Slow Food, a kind of snobby but nonetheless interesting organization dedicated to growing, preparing, and eating really great food. And I was really interested in trying a heritage turkey, but I would have had to order one, and that would had cost me upward of $140 for the bird including Fedex shipping. I like to try new foods, but there is only so far I will go, especially since its just me still working through the leftovers in July.

Heritage turkeys, in comparison to the Large White, are old-fashioned turkey breeds, turkeys closer to the original wild turkeys. They have breed names like Narragansett, Bourbon Reds, and American Bronze. They look like turkeys are supposed to look. They have normal turkey feathers and normal turkey breasts. Because only us curious rich yuppie foodies buy them, they’re raised on small farms and unpenned, and they roam and fly like wild turkeys, so they’re tougher and gamier than market turkeys. But: they have taste.

(that’s a Narragansett. Pretty, isn’t he? Picture from The New Farm website)

So there I was in Whole Foods, not planning on a turkey, when I saw they had heritage turkeys for order. All my plans for no turkey this year went right out the window. I stepped up to the table and put in my order for the smallest possible heritage, which was still going to be 14 pounds. The woman at the table was really curious. “Have you ever had one?” she asked. “I hear they have lots of dark meat.” she said, in a tone that sounded like “I hear they make you break out in sores.” I replied brightly that no, I had never had one, but I like dark meat, so that’s a good thing. “You’re the first person to order one,” she said. She had a stack of about 400 turkey orders next to her. Of course the heritage at $3.49/lb is difficult to compete with a traditional turkey that’s only a third the price or less, but still. The first one? Where is anyone’s sense of adventure?

While I was at Whole Foods I also saw they had some romanesco cauliflower, which is probably the most fascinating vegetable ever so of course I had to get some. The girl at the checkout exclaimed “Have you tried it? You’re the first person to buy some!”

I am apparently the only food experimenter in my neighborhood.

But that brings us up to today, when I picked up the heritage turkey. (like I was going to pick it up before thanksgiving with the other 400 of my neighbors? I think not). I had the meat counter at WF joint it for me (cut it up in pieces), which will make is less lovely to roast but means I can freeze most of it for cooking and eating later (leftovers. leftovers. leftovers). At home as I wrapped up the turkey pieces I noted that the heritage is definitely different from a normal turkey:

  • As advertised, the turkey has smaller breasts and larger legs. It looks pretty much proportionately like a really large chicken. A really, really large chicken.
  • The meat is DARK. The breast meat is much darker than normal turkey dark meat, and the leg and thigh meat is a deep, deep, red, almost beef red. Almost purple.
  • It has feathers! The pin feathers on the wings are black. There are only a very few of them so its not a big deal, and I assume that there are leftover pin feathers on every bird I’ve ever bought — I’ve just never noticed because they’ve been white and they blend in.
  • The meat is definitely…meatier. Its not squishy like normal turkey or chicken. This is a bird that actually moved around in its lifetime.

I wish I could end this post with a taste test, but to be honest: I had an enormous amount of turkey yesterday on turkey day, and I am sick to death of turkey right now. I have a leg and thigh of the heritage turkey in the fridge and I will roast it up in a few days and follow up then.

Gobble gobble.