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.
* 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:
* 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.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.