Heritage turkeys: smart, interesting, and delicious
Updated: Jan 16
Like many animals that people eat, turkeys get a bad rap in modern conversation. Turkeys are so stupid, the urban legend goes, that they’ll routinely drown if you leave them out in the rain; heads up, mouths open, too dumb to move before they die. That’s an incredible misconception. Turkeys are curious, brave, and frequently funny birds. Benjamin Franklin had a pretty lofty idea about their place in the pecking order; rather than the “bad moral character” of the bald eagle, he wished the “bird of courage” was America’s national symbol – the wild turkey.
Granted, the turkeys that routinely appear in big production dinners on America’s tables aren’t the same as the ones Ben Franklin would have encountered in 1776. Centuries of selective breeding have changed the industrial meat production turkey into a ponderous, heavy bird, wide of breast and short of leg. Although heritage and wild turkeys produce more dark meat than light, a popular desire for very dry and pale breast meat has led industrial meat production strands to focus all the effort of growing up on making mounds of white meat. And if you’ve ever wondered how birds from all over the world taste the same, it’s not a surprise to find out they’re all related. Every turkey that you can buy mass-produced in the supermarket come from just two ‘families’ – two strands of breeders owned by two massive corporations. Those families are pretty distant relatives of Ben Franklin’s bird of courage now, but still share some of the traits that he wished for the nation; a little “vain and silly,” and fully prepared to attack any red coat in the yard.
I’m not anticipating an attack by red coats here on Our perfect Farm (at least not any time soon) but I am excited to be welcoming some closer cousins of the wild turkey to our farm. We’re raising Narragansett, Standard Bronze, and Blue Slate turkeys; three heritage breeds that have been feeding families in the Americas for hundreds of years. Like wild turkeys, heritage turkeys are hardy birds; inquisitive, courageous, and great at foraging. They’re renowned for their great appetite and aptitude for seeking out and snacking on bugs, they make up a significant amount of the protein they need in their diets from scrounging around in the yard. They’re also great fliers; the books I’ve been reading about raising turkeys promise more than once that a 9 foot fence just isn’t going to cut it, if you’ve got any sort of slope for them to get going. But it’s worth it; watching them roost up at night and talk to each other, I’m delighted to have these funny and personable birds around.
And, it helps that they’re really delicious. Like many people, my favorite part of a turkey is the dark meat; rich and flavorful. Heritage turkeys don’t have the decades of selective breeding that increased white meat production in industrial turkeys, so – like their wild cousins – they’re mainly a dark meat bird. Our turkeys will spend their days running around outside – building bigger drumsticks! And that’s great news if you find your holiday feast meals a little flavorless in the meat department, or if you find yourself fighting to get a drumstick on your plate. Heritage turkeys are smaller, but the meat packs a big, nutritious punch, a better texture, and less salt. And all that delicious flavor means deeper, richer gravies, too. Upgrading your holiday meal game can’t be any easier than swapping your industrial turkey for a heritage one – and upgrading your ideas about turkeys can’t be any easier than getting to know them.