If a perfect Thanksgiving turkey is your holiday goal, there is a secret more vital than the brine, the cooking temperature or the stuffing. According to Black Hog Farms’ Aaron Watkins, the best Thanksgiving entrée starts with a heritage turkey.
U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton would have agreed with Watkins. He’s often quoted as saying no “citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” There was little question as to Butterball vs heritage or whether to purchase organic, free range or conventional in Hamilton’s day.
Until the 1960s, a variety of farm-raised turkey breeds anchored Thanksgiving feasts. Families reared or bought the bird best suited for their region and chose from now unheard of breeds such as Auburn, Buff, Black, Bourbon Red, Slate and Standard Bronze. Named for their boldly colored feathers, heritage turkeys weren’t kept as a nod to colorful children’s book illustrations or to make a fall farm feel festive. They were hardy, flavorful birds whose history spanned centuries and trans-oceanic voyages.
Spanish explorers took turkeys back to Europe during the explorative years of the 1500s. Finding they were easy to care for, tasty and kept insects at bay in barnyards, domesticated turkeys became common on farmsteads across Europe. When colonists settled in America, turkeys again crossed the Atlantic.
Looking to purchase a heritage turkey or organic bird for the holiday?
Call these local health food stores to place your order!
Grassroots Natural Market
2007 Park St., Jacksonville, FL
Nassau Health Foods
833 T J Courson Rd., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
Native Sun Natural Foods Market
11030 Baymeadows Rd.
Jacksonville, FL 32256
While colorful feathers, longer legs and wings and a history predating the first Thanksgiving do set heritage breeds apart from supermarket turkeys, Bon Appètit and Cooks Illustrated found that these beautiful birds also consistently taste better and repeatedly win blind taste tests.
Science supports the “richer flavor” votes. Heritage birds have access to a free-range diet higher in nutrients. This not only produces more richly flavored meat but also meat higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce heart disease. On Thanksgiving Day, that means you can have an extra slice of pie.
But the bigger factor in the turkey taste-off appears to be the longer life span — months instead of weeks — allowing the bird time to accumulate fat and thicker skin. This, in turn, seals and bastes the meat during cooking, producing a moist and flavorful turkey entree.
With the advent of large-scale poultry farming, scientists developed Broad Breasted Whites. Through the 1960s and 1970s, these rapidly maturing, massive birds became the only farmed bird — as they balloon to 32 pounds in 18 weeks and are predominantly white meat. The downside? Their breasts are so large they’re unable to fly, reproduce and sometimes are unable to walk.
This is not your mama’s turkey…or at least not your grandma’s.
As farmers grow more aware of the importance of genetic diversity, interest in heritage breeds is slowly growing. Still, heritage turkeys can be difficult to find in Northeast Florida.
Slower growing heritage breeds cost more to raise and more to buy. Thanksgiving may be just the time to splurge on a flavorful bird and enjoy a meal with tastes that bring memories of the “good ole days” when life moved more slowly, food was flavorful and meals were shared with the ones you loved.