Whether you’re planning on carving a tom, jake, or jenny this Thanksgiving, chances are you didn’t shoot the turkey yourself. Even though wild turkey numbers are growing, the vast majority of all the turkeys people bake, brine, or roast this holiday are not the wild variety. (More on that here.) Instead, domesticated Broad Breasted White turkeys make up 99 percent of the 46 million gobblers that Americans consume on Thanksgiving. Other domesticated types, known as heritage breeds, may be even more appealing to your taste buds--and your eco-sensibilities.
"The leg and thigh meat in particular was delicious: rich, moist, and tender, with a flavor more reminiscent of duck than turkey," writes Michael Pollan, the author of Omnivore's Dilemma, about his heritage turkey in an essay featured in The Best American Science Writing 2004. "Indeed, simply by virtue of having a flavor, this represented a completely different order of turkey. Now I understood what turkey was like before the triumph of the Broad Breasted White, and why eating turkey had once been considered a great treat--heretofore one of the great mysteries of life, as far as I could tell."
If heritage turkeys are so wonderful, you might ask, why are Broad Breasted Whites the most popular?
“They have been selected for decades for efficiently producing the most meat at the least cost, and they are quite remarkable in that ability,” writes Carol Ekarius in her book Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds. “The result however, is a loss of the birds’ capacity to mate naturally, so artificial insemination is required to produce fertile eggs. Broad Breasted Whites generally are not kept beyond one year of age because they have leg problems and are prone to suffering from health problems such as plaque buildup.” They're also usually produced on factory farms. Gross.
Heritage birds, on the other hand, mate naturally, have a long, productive life outdoors, and grow slower, writes the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy on its website. And like Broad Breasted Whites, heritage turkeys are also domesticated descendants of wild turkeys. Only they came first.
“Most breeds of heritage turkey were developed in the United States and Europe over hundreds of years, and were identified in the American Poultry Association's turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874. These breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Later added to the standard were the Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White,” the Heritage Turkey Foundation explains.
If you decide to cook a heritage turkey, do some shopping around (check localharvest.org, heritagefoodsusa.com, and ask your local producers for heritage breeds) before you buy your bird. If you're feeling adventurous, try a new recipe or two. Maybe you’ll even make a tradition of eating heritage breeds over the holidays. After all, Christmas is coming and that heritage goose is getting fat.