Before the monstrous turkeys that we now look forward to gobbling up every Thanksgiving, there were heritage breeds. These not-so-ancient predecessors of today's giants offered a superior taste still enjoyed by countless families across the U.S. and abroad. If your family craves a more natural diet, consider purchasing a heritage turkey breed this Thanksgiving.
What Are Heritage Turkeys?
The turkeys available in stores these days are a far cry from the turkeys raised at the turn of the century. Most cannot reproduce without assistance, requiring artificial insemination, and are designed to convert turkey food to human food as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Heritage turkeys are different. These birds reproduce naturally, meaning they mate and lay fertile eggs without human assistance. They have a lengthy productive outdoor lifespan, unlike today's birds, and can survive in outdoor conditions. While these sound like admirable qualities, the catch for modern farmers is that heritage breeds take approximately 28 weeks to reach market weight. Commercial Broad Breasted White turkeys only take 16-18.
The Livestock Conservancy lists 12 heritage turkey breeds still in production today. While it is hard to choose from these beautiful and increasingly rare options, here are three turkeys your family is bound to love.
The Standard Bronze Turkey
One of the most popular heritage turkey breeds throughout American history is the Standard Bronze. The predecessor of the now commercially defunct Broad Breasted Bronze, this heritage breed gets its name from its beautiful bronze plumage.
All turkeys originated in the Americas. Some were taken back to Europe in the early days of discovery, and the Bronze is a cross between these European domesticated turkeys and the wild Eastern turkey of the Americas. The bronze coloring comes from the wild ancestor, and the hybrid vigor of the cross produced a domestic bird well adapted to life in its colonial American surroundings. Settlers even crossed the breed back with wild turkeys periodically to strengthen the bloodlines.
Over the course of their history, certain birds were bred for larger breasts. These birds formed a new breed called the Broad Breasted Bronze, developed primarily for commercial production. The success of the breed was short lived. The new Broad Breasted White turkey gained more commercial appeal because the white pin feathers were harder to see than the darker pinfeathers in a plucked bird. Consumers did not appreciate any visible lingering feathers.
Bronze toms weigh in at around 25 pounds and hens at 16. This makes them an appropriate choice for most family gatherings, as they produce plenty of meat for dinner and leftovers. Both the Standard Bronze and its larger relative, the Broad Breasted Bronze, are still used for small-scale, seasonal production, but the breed is considered threatened by livestock conservancy groups.
The Narragansett Turkey
The spectacular black and white plumage of these birds is second only to their taste. They were developed by European settlers in the Narragansett Bay area of Rhode Island in the 1600s and the breed quickly became the foundation of the New England turkey industry. The hardy foul required little supplemental feed, gaining most of their nutrition from insect foraging.
The Narragansett Turkey never achieved quite the same popularity as the Standard Bronze. In fact, the breed began to slip in popularity as the Standard Bronze's popularity grew.
Narragansett hens possess strong maternal instincts and are generally good-natured and calm. Young toms grow to 22-28 pounds and hens 12-16. Combined with their fertility, longevity, durability and relatively early maturation, the breed is an excellent choice for smaller, sustainable farms.
You can support these farmers and this beautiful and uniquely American breed by purchasing a Narragansett turkey this Thanksgiving.
The White Holland Turkey
Two breeds of turkeys are responsible for creating the enormous breasted birds we know today: the Standard Bronze and the White Holland. For the first half of the 20th century, the White Holland was the only commercially produced white turkey. The white pin feathers left a cleaner carcass than the dark pin feathers of the larger Bronze, giving the Holland White a commercial edge.
Breeders ultimately crossed the Broad Breasted Bronze with the Holland White to create the Broad Breasted White turkey found in supermarkets across the globe around this time of year. Despite their contributions to the turkey industry, the Holland is now a threatened breed of heritage turkey.
White turkeys are ancient. The Aztecs selectively bred for white birds, and there were certainly white birds in the initial stocks sent to Europe. Many Europeans continued to breed for the white coloring. Despite the name, the White Holland is an entirely American breed. White turkeys brought over by European settlers were crossed and further developed into the breed we know today.
Toms reach market weight at 25 pounds and hens at 16, however, it is increasingly difficult to find Holland Whites. Many varieties possess some of the broad breasted qualities of the Broad Breasted White. This evidence of cross-breeding could mean that the days of the White Holland are numbered.
Why Buy Heritage Turkeys?
Now that you know a little bit about three of America's heritage turkey breeds, the question still remains: why buy a heritage turkey? If the history is not important to you, consider the importance of biodiversity. With more varieties of turkeys available to farmers and consumers, the more options farmers and consumers have. Plus increased biodiversity produces healthier, tastier, more resilient birds.
Don't let my words convince you. Talk to a local farmer today and try a heritage breed for yourself this Thanksgiving to see the difference in taste.