The late '90s were all about heirloom tomatoes. This Thanksgiving, it's heritage turkeys.
The buzz around these birds started growing in 2002, when Slow Food USA worked with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC-USA.org) and a national network of small farmers to market, sell, and distribute breeds of turkeys that were perilously close to extinction.
Breeds such as Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, and White Holland dominated the market from the 18th century until the 1960s. After World War II, however, scientists created a turkey that better fit the needs of factory farming. Now more than 90 percent of the world's domestic turkeys are Broad Breasted White, bred for gargantuan breasts, less-visible pin feathers, indoor living, and efficient conversion of grain to meat.
The ALBC began to promote the conservation of old-school breeds of domestic livestock animals in 1977. "Their genetics are a resource," says Marjorie Bender, research and technical program manager. "We need to have those genetics available to us so we have options as agriculture changes, as disease changes."
For the past two years, the heritage birds were largely available only through Slow Food or direct from a farm. Supply was scarce. This year, East Bay foodies can order one through Andronico's markets or the Berkeley Bowl. They all come from Mary's Turkeys (MarysTurkeys.com) in Madera, the largest producer of heritage turkeys on the West Coast.
Mary and Rick Pitman have been breeding Broad Breasteds for companies like Butterball for about thirty years. But when all the turkey producers except Foster Farms left California, the Pitmans bet the farm on the growing interest in free-range and organic turkeys. Last year, after being contacted by Slow Food, they invested in one thousand Bourbon Reds -- and sold out. This year they doubled the flock.
Located near Petaluma are two smaller producers, S&B Farm and Willie Bird Turkeys (WillieBird.com). Sylvia Mavalwalla of S&B says she's already sold her flock of 160 Narragansetts, but Willie Bird manager Beagle Brodsky says it's not too late to order one of the four hundred Bourbon Reds he's raising for Thanksgiving -- alongside forty thousand Broad Breasteds.
Heritage turkeys cost $4 to $4.25 a pound -- twice the price of other fresh, free-range turkeys. But nobody is making a mint. "We basically cover the cost of their feed," Pitman says.
How so? Well, since the breeding stock is so rare, Bourbon Red and Narragansett poults can cost anywhere from $7.25 to $10 apiece, compared to $1 to $2 per poult for Broad Breasted Whites. And heritage turkeys take six to eight months to reach optimum weight, compared to three months for the BBWs. Also, heritage toms rarely exceed 22 pounds and the hens plump up to about 14 pounds. A Broad Breasted might reach fifty pounds if left alive that long, Mavalwalla says. That's a lot of extra grain for a little bird. "They eat good," Brodsky concurs with a half-sigh.
But the real test is taste. "The advantage of heritage birds is that they are more richly flavored," Mary Pitman says. "The white meat has a better texture -- it's not dry or mushy," Bender adds.
Mavalwalla attributes the improved flavor to maturity. "Because they fly around and run and jump, they develop much more muscle than a Broad Breasted. The older they get, the more muscle tone." Frankly, she thinks her Broad Breasteds would taste the same as her Narragansetts if they made it to the same age, but few do. After six months, she says, the bigger birds become more prone to strokes and aortic ruptures. They just weren't bred to have the infrastructure to support those top-heavy muscles, Bender explains.
But not everyone is jumping on the heritage turkeywagon. "Who's going to pay $80 for a turkey?" says Tim McCormick, owner of Magnani Poultry in Berkeley. "They will never break into the market. It's not cost-effective." His fowl come from Fulton Valley Farms, a longstanding eco-chef favorite.
Aren't liberal foodies willing to pay more for their ethics? "No, they're not," McCormick snorts. "They will pay for quality product, consistent quality, but they won't overpay for it."
Bender believes that heritage turkeys will always remain a niche market. And that's all right with her. Three thousand heritage turkeys were sold in 2002, the ALBC reports. This year, it's predicting fourteen thousand. This could be the big test of whether heritage turkeys are a fad or a movement. Pitman hasn't sold all of hers yet, but she's optimistic. "I have a lot of customers who bought a heritage turkey last year who are ordering it again," she says. "People really enjoy these birds."