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A Heritage Thanksgiving
Images of big, beautiful turkeys with colorful feathers and tail feathers are everywhere during the Thanksgiving holiday season. For many of us, eating turkey with family on this holiday is a time-honored tradition and in some special way makes us feel very connected to our ancestors. However, the turkeys most likely served at this feast in the past were quite different from most served today. In fact, if you’re under 50, you’ve probably never tasted one of these turkeys. Now referred to as heritage turkeys, they are distant relatives of the common industrial breed of broad-breasted white turkeys that are now sold in 99% of grocery stores, and until recently they were almost extinct.
Our modern commercial turkeys were popularized by poultry processors in the 1960s because of their large amounts of white meat, the preference of most Americans. They were also desirable because of their white feathers which did not discolor their skin. Unfortunately, to promote meat development, 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 breastbones and short legs. Most of them are so big that their legs cannot support their weight and they are unable to walk. They must be bred through artificial insemination because they are no longer able to reproduce naturally. So basically, these birds just sit in one place and eat until they reach their market weight so that we can enjoy their tender meat.
In contrast, heritage turkeys are raised eating grass and fresh insects. They walk, fly, breed, raise their own chicks and even help control farmers’ pest problems. They are valued for their taste, texture and beautiful plumage. Heritage breeds of turkeys are Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland. Raising heritage turkeys takes more time and cost, 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. Mating naturally: should be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. This means that turkeys that are marketed as “heirloom” must be the result of the natural mating of grandparent pairs.
2. Long productive life in nature: 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 a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.
3. Slow growth rate: 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 of 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 the taste of an animal – the basic taste of its 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 long, than the commercial broad-breasted white. The more an animal moves around, the more interesting its taste. Of course, turkeys raised in a pasture get much more exercise than those sitting in buildings unable to walk. Turkeys that have a diet of green grass, plants and insects have a deeper flavor than birds that are fed exclusively grain feed.
Besides tasting great, roasting an heirloom turkey to perfection is much easier than the industrialized white one. Since they have smaller breasts, there is a better balance between the dark and white meat, so the white meat cooks faster than the dark meat and there is no need to cover the breast with foil to prevent it from drying out while the piece the other part of the bird is cooked. . If the breast is covered during roasting, it should be done with oiled parchment paper, not foil, which is then removed 30 minutes before the turkey is done cooking. 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. Remember not to 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 freer from disease and bacteria, so they don’t need extreme temperatures to make them safe to eat.) cooking time will not allow the stuffing to cook completely, so cook the stuffing first and put it inside the turkey before roasting. Alternatively, you can experiment with adding a chopped fruit like 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 while 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 in the late 1990s they were on the verge 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 infusing or deep-frying a commercial white turkey for added flavor, why not enjoy a naturally flavorful, moist heirloom turkey? Spend once a year and make your Thanksgiving special. It will require some planning on your part if you want to try an heirloom turkey as they are not always available. It may be too late to buy one for Thanksgiving this year, as farmers usually don’t know until February, but now is the perfect time to look at options for 2009.
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