November 19, 2008 at 3:53PM
By Leslie Land
Kristi and I are discussing the last bits of putting the garden to bed. We're wondering about the winter rye, our standard cover crop for the Maine vegetable plots. Nothing seems to be coming up. Big Mystery. Seed was fresh, there has been rain...
Mystery solved first thing in the morning. I look out the bedroom window into the rosy dawn and there in the garden is a flock of wild turkeys, busily scratching and eating.
I grew up learning about how wild turkeys were a big success story, conservtionwise, how these once abundant native birds had almost disappeared by the early 20th century, and how they had been reintroduced -- had taken hold, were coming back from the brink.
A great story when you hear it instead of experiencing it. Ten years ago, sighting a flock of wild turkeys was a rare treat, a real ooh and ah event.
That was then. Now I only wish they were easier to shoot and dress out. Like deer they've become a plague, not only restored to their old stomping grounds but also quickly spreading into habitats they never knew before. And like deer, they owe part of their success to people who want to hunt them.
As the National Wild Turkey Federation explains in its annual report:
" ... At the time NWTF was established (1973), there were only 1.3 million wild turkeys. Today that number stands at more than seven million birds throughout North America, and hunting seasons have been established in 49 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico...."
All very well and good for the hunters, but as the wild turkey page at Cornell's All About Birds site makes clear, it's bad news for gardeners. The wild turkey diet includes seeds, fruits and buds; a single breeding cycle can produce anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs; and no one seems to have told the folks at AAB that "habitat" is no longer limited to "hardwood forests with scattered openings, swamps, mesquite grassland, ponderosa pine, and chaparral."
I happened to be on the phone with Bill the next day, when they were back again... Let's just say he has an exaggerated respect for my marksmanship with a 22 (also for my willingness to break an assortment of game hunting laws).
But I was with him in spirit, which brings us of course to the Thanksgiving bird and is it worth it -- conservationally or gastronomically -- to seek out a heritage turkey, the high-end turkey du jour.
The only way you can eat wild turkey is to hunt or know someone who does, but it is getting (marginally) easier to do your bit for conservation by cooking up one of the old-time breeds of domestic turkey, most of which are in far greater danger of extinction than their wild cousins. Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm -- just the names raise the hope of flavor missing from the Broad Breasted Whites that are standard throughout the land.
The American Livestock Breed Conservancy defines Heritage turkeys and describes a whole bunch of them here. And if you don't know a local source you might find one -- for next year -- through Local Harvest. (To get the largest number of listings, ask in the search field for "heritage turkey." (Clicking on "Thanksgiving specials" returns far fewer choices.)
Several of these farms mail order, as does the well-known Heritage Foods, a pioneer in what might be called the heirloom turkey movement.
You are on your own about whether the shipping footprint cancels out the breed rescue points, especially given that local turkey farms are themselves an endangered species. But whether it's local or long-distance, a heritage turkey is an investment.
Cooking Tips For Heritage Turkeys
* Regardless of breed, heritage turkeys take much longer than Broad Breasted Whites to reach slaughter weight, and most of them are free range. As a result they have more flavor, which takes time to develop and is enhanced by freedom of movement. But age and activity are not great promoters of tenderness. Heritage turkeys need not be tough -- in fact they shouldn't be -- but they will be chewier than the industrial model, especially in the legs.
* Heritage breeds have a larger proportion of bone to meat than Broad Breasted Whites. Allow 1 pound per serving if you don't want leftovers, rather more if you do. The bigger the bird, the more meat in proportion to bone but also (see above) the greater likelihood that said meat will be tough. If you need a lot of turkey two 12 to 14-pound birds are a better bet than one 24-pounder.
* Heritage turkeys are leaner than the standard brand, so they dry out fast if they are even slightly overcooked. To avoid this:
- Be sure to take the bird out of the fridge long enough ahead of time. The meat will cook through much faster and more evenly if it is at room temperature before you start roasting. This is widely advised against because of the danger of bacterial growth. But you are planning to cook the turkey well enough to be sure it's safe, so although there's no point in pushing it -- don't leave the thing out all day -- there's no reason to be paranoid.
- Stuffing slows down cooking time, increasing the chances of dried out meat. If you can bear it, just put a few flavorings (herbs, celery, garlic, citrus slices) inside the bird and bake the stuffing in a separate pan. (Resist the temptation to brine. It will make the turkey juicier but it will also mute the flavor you're paying large dollars to enjoy.)
- aim for an internal temperature of 150, measured at the thickest part of the thigh (temperature will rise at least 5 degrees, probably more, while the turkey stands for 20 minutes in a warm place to reabsorb juices before you carve it, a step that should not be omitted.) This is hot enough to destroy bacteria without destroying the turkey. Even the USDA, home of obscenely overcooked, utterly butt-coveringly safe meat, has lowered its target temperature from 180 to 165.
* Don't expect brittle, crisp, crackly skin; age and leanness conspire against. Sliding slices of frozen butter between the skin and the meat improves both but doesn't work miracles.
* No matter how careful you are, results will vary depending on the individual bird. Heritage turkeys are not interchangeable widgets; the farmers who raise them are still learning and the revival is still new -- there hasn't been time for breed re-improvement. Many of these rarities were only kept going by poultry fanciers raising them as show birds, so no attention was paid to preserving traits that once endeared them to farmers and consumers. Considerable progress has already been made, but it's going to take a while for these breeds to regain (and build on) their full potential.