Free-range turkey may be the rage of the natural-food set, but the holiday bird lover who really wants to get close to how the pilgrims experienced America's signature meal should consider heritage turkey this year.
The label "heritage"—much like "heirloom" when used to describe vegetables—indicates that the turkey has bypassed the genetic engineering that turned the bird Benjamin Franklin once promoted for the honor of America's national symbol into a white heavyweight designed for quick mass production, but with bland taste. Dedicated farmers raise extant turkey varieties from colonial days, such as the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett and White Holland, with the goal of reintroducing Americans to turkeys with the flavor enjoyed by previous generations.
The North Carolina-based American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which champions heritage turkeys, takes the free-range concept several steps further. The organization mandates pasture land (not just an earth paddock) and a partially wild diet, as well as raising turkeys from traditional breeds.
At Bill Yockey's 34-acre farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, 350 birds forage on bluegrass, fescue and clover, as well as grasshoppers and moths. Yockey adds a farmyard diet of locally milled corn, oats and wheat. His birds fly, roost off the ground and propagate naturally. (Mass-produced turkeys are too breast-heavy to mate or fly.) The result is an unstressed bird with a strong immune system and much more flavorful and colorful meat. While the varieties vary a bit in size, their flavor does not. Plumage was originally bred to identify flocks. Expect long, dark legs (the birds run) and a white, but not bleached breast. No basting is necessary, according to Yockey. Its tough skin insulates a heritage bird in the oven, so the meat retains moisture. A slice is quite firm compared with a mass-produced turkey. Expect to pay about $4 to $7 a pound.
While more natural, heritage turkey feeding regimens are no less exacting than those at high-volume breeders. Mike Walters, who raises nine heritage varieties in Oklahoma, explains that the last seven to 10 days before slaughter are crucial for flavor. "I finish them off with chopped corn for a sweet and juicy taste," he says. He adds that some growers finish their turkeys with sage.
The next step toward the true pilgrim experience is wild turkey. This may not be for everyone; the taste is gamy compared with the rich flavor of heritage birds, and the yield is low (average eight-pound hens) with a higher percentage of dark meat.
Visit www.townlinefarm.com (Yockey), www.historicalturkeys.com (Walters) or www.slowfoodusa.com.