An English turkey breeder named Jesse Throssel brought birds that were so meaty they had trouble mating naturally to the Portland International Livestock Show around 1930. Throssel’s turkeys, called broad breasted bronzes, were a hit. In the 1950s they were bred with white hollands to create a breed called the broad breasted white, which had a creamier skin tone. Reared for maximum breast meat, broad breasted whites became so popular that breeds such as the Narragansett, Bourbon Red and Jersey Buff were nearly driven to extinction.
We can thank poultry experts, who have selected for traits that increase the turkey’s ability to digest protein and assimilate nutrients, for the behemoth birds we will devour this Thanksgiving. Hatched from an egg at less than two ounces, turkeys can weigh 40 pounds come slaughter time, just 24 weeks later. Other big birds like emus and ostriches have seen brief moments in the sun, says Oregon State University poultry expert Tom Savage, but the turkey’s ability to produce high-protein meat quickly has kept it king. “For a breeder, emus would be a nightmare,” said Savage.
His colleague in poultry, James Hermes, remembers the ostrich fad of the 1980s, at the height of which the flightless birds, which can weigh up to 400 pounds and are native to Africa, were selling for $80,000 a pair. Breeders were eager to try their hands at raising ostriches but no one wanted the meat. “The discussion was, ‘Are they a little cow or a big chicken?’” Hermes said.
An interest in emus followed. Native to Australia and one-third the weight of ostrich, emus were marketed for their meat and oil. The meat, tough, red, expensive and difficult to prepare properly, never caught on. The oil, which is rendered from the fat, is still used in salves and creams. “It smells like chicken fat,” said Hermes, “so when you put it on your skin your dog really likes it.”
He doesn’t think it likely boutique big birds will make a comeback anytime soon. “The American consumer is not typically experimental with their diet,” said Hermes. “Trying to convince people to buy a product that last year they never bought is difficult.”