Complement Your Fine Waters with a Fine Turkey
Are Heritage Turkeys Worth the Money?
Looking For A Real Turkey?
The Oldest Continuous Flock of Standard Bred Turkeys in America
A turkey like none you've ever tasted. This year, it's possible to get a heritage bird for
Thanksgiving. We've been hearing the complaints for decades: Modern
turkey is a shadow of its former self — a dry, tasteless excuse for what used to
be a flavorful, succulent bird.
And for the last couple of years, we've been hearing about
heritage turkeys — old-fashioned varieties that are the heirloom tomatoes of the
poultry world. Now, you can find out for yourself.
A small group of farmers and conservationists are reviving
heritage turkeys. With the marketing support of Slow Food USA, about 30 farmers
nationwide are raising varieties such as the Narragansett, Standard Bronze,
Black and Bourbon Red.
The familiar Broadbreasted White, bred for its prodigious
quantity of white meat and its ability to grow quickly to enormous size, is all
that's been available to most of us. Allowed to grow older than these commercial
birds, heritage turkeys put on an extra layer of fat. Proponents say this gives
them deeper flavor and that exercise gives them firmer texture.
Heritage turkey breeding programs are so new, and the
orders are required so far in advance (when you order one, it's basically
custom-raised for you), that only a few thousand birds are available to
restaurants or home cooks throughout the country each year.
It's too late to
place an order directly with a California farm for a fresh bird for this
Thanksgiving, but there are a few options open to those who want a heritage
turkey. Kansas turkey farmer struggles to maintain a part of our
The Kansas City Star
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
Frank Reese Jr. stands knee deep in American Bronze
turkeys, a premium-priced flock that would surely cause the average American
consumer sticker shock. Instead of hovering around $1 a pound like you'd pay in
the supermarket, one of his rare heritage birds can cost up to $7 a pound.
any other Thanksgiving feast centerpiece, Reese's birds make the journey from
farm to a federally inspected processing plant to Thanksgiving dinner tables
across America. But if not for Reese's passion, these old breeds -- such as the
American Bronze, the Narragansett and the Bourbon Red -- might have been lost
forever. "The original Thanksgiving turkey, the ones our grandparents ate until
the 1950s, are gone," says Reese, 50, the owner of Good Shepherd Ranch just
outside Lindsborg, Kan., a bucolic Swedish farming community in central Kansas.
Reese shudders at the thought.
"This is a truly American icon. This is the bird
that fed Americans for 200 years," he says. Once found on nearly every farm
across the country, the heritage turkey was edged off the carving platter in the
1960s in a rush to mass-produce our food. In just a decade, the original
American Bronze and its offspring were almost extinct, replaced by
bigger-breasted birds bearing plenty of white meat. But what consumers didn't
bargain for was something drier and blander-tasting than those more graceful old
birds of our past.
"Whenever I give anybody one of my Thanksgiving birds, I tell
them, `Don't deep fry it. Don't inject it. Don't put garlic and sage all over
it,' " Reese says. That's because his birds retain a natural layer of fat that
makes them more succulent. Later, when Reese pulls a roasting pan out of the
oven in his kitchen and peeks under the foil, he marvels at the clear, golden
broth the meat swims in.A taste reveals a dark meat that's almost gamy, with a
flavor that lingers.
Because it's a more muscular bird, the meat is toothier,
too. And the white meat is not as snowy white as the Broad Breasted White, the
current industry standard.Even the actual shape of the bird is so different that
today's shallow, rectangular roasting pans aren't large enough to accommodate
the longer legs and keel bones of the heritage birds.
Built for breed This year Reese raised 3,000 heritage
turkeys, barely a blip on the radar screen when compared to the 270 million
mass-produced turkeys hunkering down in your grocer's freezer case.
Poultry Association Web site
lists eight breeds of heritage turkeys. The American Livestock Breeds
Conservancy 1997 census
turned up just 8,200 heritage turkeys. Earlier this year the ALBC recognized
Reese for his outstanding work in the conservation of heritage turkeys. Slow
Foods USA, an international nonprofit educational organization, has tracked down
about 40 heritage turkey breeders in the country, but Reese's flock is among the
As we stand in the turkey pasture, Reese proudly displays his
flock -- birds that, although earth-tone, are every bit as fanciful as a
peacock. Then he points to a single Broad Breasted White hen whose feathers are
scraggly and plucked bare in places. "They know she's not right," he says. "When
you've changed the natural structure of the way the bird should be built, you're
going against nature. "The Broad Breasted Whites can be raised in as little as
two months. They have shorter legs and are so top heavy they often have trouble
walking and are virtually incapable of breeding.
By contrast, heritage turkeys
take seven months to mature and are ill-suited for factory farming because they
require room to roost and roam. Later, Reese thumbs through a slim,
maroon-fabric-covered volume titled Standards of Perfection, published in 1894.
He points to a line drawing of the American Bronze, first recognized by the
American Poultry Association in 1874. "I care as much about the aesthetics as
the production," he says.
"They're supposed to have that beautiful copper all
the way down the front of it and all the way down the back." Although the
American Bronze is actually the bird most of us associate with Thanksgiving,
Reese worries efforts to save them could backfire if the quality of the breeding
"We can push the turkey to get people who will buy it just for the sake
of trying to help save the bird, but unless they get a quality bird to sit on
their table, they won't come back," he says. The turkey must sell itself." I'll
know we're there when someone tells me they want a Bronze turkey and they no
longer say `free-range' or `heritage.' "
Paying the price
Reese's passion for poultry runs deep. For years Reese bred
his turkeys even though there wasn't much of a market for them.
Then in 2001 he
got a call from Slow Foods USA, an organization that seeks to preserve rare and
endangered foods by bringing them back to the American table. "It's not just
about cataloging animals or foods, it's about taking action," says Robert
LaValva, director of the Ark Project for Slow Food USA, which is based in New
York City. "The bottom line is, unless people consume them -- by buying them and
eating them -- they're not going to survive."
Slow Food USA put the heritage
turkey on its Ark USA, a modern-day Noah's Ark spotlighting endangered
indigenous foods. Then it set up an arm called Heritage Food to handle the
buying, processing and selling of the turkeys for Reese and other farmers. Last
year the organization sold 700 turkeys.
This year the project is sold out at
1,100 turkeys, despite the hefty price tag -- $169, plus shipping costs -- for a
24-pound bird. "We think it's not a question of affording it so much as choosing
how to spend your money. We think there is a really promising future for this
kind of project to grow," LaValva says.
"It's a very small market," admits
Heather Hands, owner of Local Harvest, a Kansas City organic produce market and
grocery that promotes locally produced foods. "They are quite pricey. But there
are people who want the heritage turkeys just like there are people who want
heirloom vegetables, and (they) are willing to pay a little more." For the first
time, Hands will sell a small number of Reese's turkeys on a first-come,
first-serve basis for $6.15 per pound.
For comparison's sake, customers who
choose to buy Campo Lindo's free-range turkeys will pay closer to $2.75 a pound.
Yet even as interest in preservation grows, it's doubtful the price of heritage
turkeys will decrease because of the increased time investment required to raise
them. Plus there's the extra money Reese must spend to feed the turkeys organic
feed of corn, soy and oats, which costs $532 per ton, or roughly twice as much
as conventional feed that contains a higher percentage of fat.
Back From The Brink
Growing up, my youngest brother used to tell tales of how turkeys were so stupid they could drown themselves in a rainstorm simply by looking up. However, contrary to popular folklore, turkeys are not necessarily stupid, unless they're bred that way.
"My turkeys are still smart," Reese says in a thank-you-very-much tone. They are, indeed, curious animals and greet me with a gobbling sound that swells and reverberates, reminding me of a sort of bobble-head doll soundtrack. They peck at my jeans pocket now and then to see if they can get my attention. Anything shiny, especially the rings on my hands,
which dangle at eye level, attract their attention because turkeys must ingest rocks and sand to grind and digest their food. As Reese shows me the turkey pasture he built for the birds to roam in, they follow him like a dog following his master.
Meanwhile four, huge shaggy Newfoundland and Commodore dogs keep predators at bay. Wild turkeys were roaming the land when Columbus reached the New World, but it wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to crossbreed them with European varieties. The American Bronze was considered the most stalwart of the breeds. From its genetic stock came the Narragansett, which is the reverse color pattern of the Bronze, as well as the other possible variations: White Holland, Slate and Black.
Later came the Bourbon Red, which
was recognized by the APA in 1910. The Beltsville Small White and the Royal Palm, a purely ornamental bird, round out the list of standard breeds Although Reese makes his living as a nurse/anesthetist, he has been a champion of the turkey since he was 5 years old. He recalls that the first story he ever wrote while attending a one-room schoolhouse in Salina was titled "Me and My Turkey." Reese grew up tending poultry on his parents' farm and showing the birds as part of his 4-H projects starting at age 8, when his father bought him 25 Broad
Breasted Bronze poults.
For the last 20 years, Reese worked closely with his
mentor, Norman Kardosh, a poultry breeder from the Stockton/Alton, Kan., area. Like Kardosh, Reese never married. "I think it's because you get so focused you just don't take the time," he says. But like children, Reese says he'll provide for his birds in his will. "The whole reason to do this is to keep these birds
from going extinct," Reese says.
Every October, Kardosh came to Reese's farm to help him choose his breeders. Reese places a snapshot of Kardosh on the table. He fights back tears as he recalls how Kardosh, who died in January, would not be there to help him select his breeders this year. Although Kardosh didn't
necessarily understand America's fickle appetites, Reese says he understood his prized birds had a fighting chance to make it back from the brink of extinction. "I think he was happy because, in the end, it might be their salvation," Reese