Holiday celebrations are the perfect time to reinforce our connection with family, with the earth and with those in our communities who strive to raise the foods we'll be enjoying on this special occasion. What better way to celebrate our ties to the past than by enjoying heritage and heirloom foods while supporting our local communities?
When it comes to heirloom and heritage foods, fruits and vegetables most likely come to mind more readily. It's easy to forget that heritage livestock and, in this case, heritage turkeys have long-standing lineages as well. What's old is new again with heritage turkeys gaining in popularity and a renewed interest in preserving their diverse breeds.
Heritage birds provide big benefits when it comes to flavor. They have a longer "growing" period than commercially raised turkeys and, as a result, have an extra layer of fat (and we all know that fat = flavor.) They also have a higher proportion of dark to white meat because they get considerably more exercise than those that spend their time in conventional cramped quarters. Their varied diet makes them more flavorful as well, as their organic feed is supplemented with bugs and fresh grasses compliments of Mother Nature.
If a heritage bird is out of the question this season, the next best options are organic and sustainable turkeys. Organic turkeys are certified by the USDA and adhere to healthy raising practices, which ban the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. They also have access to the outdoors, where they can enhance their menu with foods nature intended them to eat. These turkeys can be heritage breeds and can also include the more common Broadbreasted White.
The USDA, or any other agency, for that matter, does not regulate sustainably raised turkeys. But youll find that farmers raising sustainable birds often go far and above USDA organic standards and work not only to preserve the breed itself but also the land on which theyre raised.
If an organic or sustainable Broadbreasted White is all you can find this year, take heart in the fact that the animals were raised humanely and were not subjected to the same conditions you might find on a factory farm.
If a heritage, organic or sustainable turkey is not on your holiday menu this year, check out your farmers' market or natural food store for local, fresh birds. As with any food you eat, it's best to know exactly where your turkey came from, especially if it wasn't directly from the farmer.
And finally, if the only turkey you can find is a conventionally raised one, there are a few ways to add rich taste and moisture by use of brines, glazes and hearty herbs, which will make your supermarket turkey markedly better in the flavor department. Brining makes a less flavorful, lean-meat turkey more succulent, tender and well seasoned. You may want to surround that turkey with heirloom fruits and vegetables instead of the usual supermarket fare. At least you'll still be contributing to sustaining a breed of plant for the future while enjoying all the best flavors they have to offer.
Ordering and Preparing Your Heritage or Farm Fresh Turkey
Heritage birds can be ordered online at Websites such as Heritage Foods, USA.
Our Get Local Info module takes things a step further and allows you to punch in your zip code to search for farms, stores and markets that offer heritage meats close to home.
Need a quick primer on how to get the most from your heritage bird? Chef Laura Pensiero shares her recipe for Preparing and Roasting Your Farm Fresh Turkey.
To learn more about heritage turkeys, see our article What's a Turkey In Critical Condition? For more information on conserving historic breeds and genetic livestock, check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's Website. To join or donate to its work, click here.
Can't find a heritage bird? Try these vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes.
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