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A Heritage Thanksgiving
Images of big, beautiful turkeys with colorful plumage and tail feathers are everywhere during the Thanksgiving holiday season. For many of us, eating a turkey with the family this holiday season is a time-honored tradition that in some special way makes us feel very connected to our ancestors. However, the turkeys likely served at this feast in the past were quite different than the majority served today. In fact, if you’re under 50, you’ve probably never tried one of these turkeys. Now referred to as heritage turkeys, they are the distant relatives of the common broad-white industrial turkey breed that is now sold in 99% of grocery stores and until very recently were almost extinct.
Our modern commercial turkeys were popularized by poultry processors in the 1960s because of the large amounts of white meat that most Americans prefer. They were also desirable because of their white feathers that did not discolor their skin. Unfortunately, to promote meat growth, their bodies and growth rates have been altered, so most of them are full of growth supplements as well as antibiotics. They now have unnaturally large breasts, short chest bones and short legs. The majority of them are so big that their legs cannot support their weight and they cannot walk. They must be bred by artificial insemination because they can no longer reproduce naturally. So basically, these birds sit in one place and eat until they reach their market weight for us to enjoy their tender meat.
In contrast, heritage turkeys are raised on a diet of fresh grass and insects. They walk, fly, breed, raise their own chicks and even help control farmers’ pest problems. They are prized for their taste, texture and beautiful plumage. Heritage turkey breeds are Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland. Raising heritage turkeys is more time-consuming and expensive, but it preserves genetic diversity and keeps alive an American culinary tradition that dates back to the early years of English settlement. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a heritage turkey:
1. Natural mating: must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. This means that turkeys marketed as “heirloom” must be the result of natural mating of pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
2. Long productive life outdoors: it must have a long productive life. Breeding hens are usually productive for 5-7 years and breeding hens for 3-5 years. They must also have the genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.
3. Slow growth rate: it should have a slow to moderate growth rate. Today’s heritage turkeys reach marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs before building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of commercial varieties in the first half of the 20th century.
Raising turkeys this way is not only more humane, but also results in a much tastier bird. There are four factors that affect flavor in animals – the fundamental underlying flavor of the meat, its age, how it was raised and what it ate. Older animals have more flavor than younger ones, and heritage turkeys are allowed to grow at a much slower rate, about twice as much, than commercial Broad-Breasted White. The more an animal moves, the more interesting its taste. Apparently, turkeys that are raised in a pasture get a lot more exercise than those that sit in buildings where they can’t walk. Turkeys fed a diet of green grass, plants and insects have a deeper flavor than birds fed exclusively on grain.
In addition to tasting great, roasting a heritage turkey to perfection is much easier than the manufactured white. Since they have a smaller breast, there is a better balance between the dark and white meat, so the white meat cooks faster than the dark meat, and you don’t need to cover the breast with foil to keep it from drying out while the rest of the bird cooks. . If the breast is covered while roasting, it should be covered with greased parchment paper, not aluminum foil, which is then removed 30 minutes before the turkey is finished roasting. Heritage turkeys are leaner and smaller, so cooking quickly at high temperatures is a better method than slow roasting all day. They should be cooked to 425-450 degrees F until the internal temperature reaches 140-150 degrees F. Do not let the tip of the thermometer touch the bone. (Note: This is different from the USDA recommendation of 160F-180F, but these temperatures will dry out a heritage turkey. Heritage birds are more free from disease and bacteria, so they don’t need extreme temperatures to become safe to eat.) The reduced cooking time will not allow the stuffing to cook completely, so cook the stuffing first and place it inside the turkey before you cook it. Alternatively, you can experiment by adding a quartered piece of fruit, such as an orange or an apple, inside the turkey instead of stuffing. You can also try adding butter or oil under the breast skin to add flavor and moisture when baking. As always, bring the bird to room temperature before cooking and be sure to let it rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.
Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Slow Food USA, heritage turkeys are growing in popularity, but by the late 1990s they were on the brink of extinction. They realized that we have to eat them to save them because the more we eat, the more there will be. By continuing to eat heritage turkeys and supporting breeders, the quality of the birds will only improve.
Instead of injecting or deep frying a commercial white turkey for added flavor, why not enjoy a naturally flavorful and moist heritage turkey? Get out of debt once a year and make your Thanksgiving special. It will take some planning on your part if you want to try an heirloom turkey, as they are not always readily available. It may be too late to buy one for Thanksgiving this year, as farmers usually don’t know until February, but now is a great time to consider options for 2009.
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