Turkeys are just about the most American of all poultry. They originated here and are celebrated by cultures ancient and modern. However, what was once a prized animal brimming with intelligence and flavor has now largely become a mere shadow of its original self. Thankfully, you have another choice beyond the butterball: Welcome to a world where heritage turkeys are making a comeback.
Wild to Domestic All turkeys around the world are descended from the wild turkeys that still roam the fields and forests of North and South America. The domesticated turkeys we see today have their origin, as do many New World foods, in the practices of the Mayan, Aztec, and other Native peoples. They were domesticating wild turkeys for centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Biologists believe that these birds were the genesis of the breeding stock that the early explorers brought back to Europe. Most of those first turkeys to travel the Atlantic were black in color due to selective breeding but were genetically identical to the wild turkeys found throughout the region. What became known as the Spanish Black was the very first domesticated breed of turkey found in England and much of Europe.
Those birds were big and hearty fowl, highly intelligent, capable of flight, more than willing to peck and root out their own food in the form of insects, acorns, fruits, and seeds. They were prized for the flavor of their meat and their natural ability to improve the ecosystems of the farms they were raised on. Early travelers to the New World must have been excited to show off these novel birds to folks back home. It must have been like someone invented a new and better chicken.
However, it’s what happened upon the turkey’s arrival back in North America that brings us our first easily recognizable domesticated turkey species. Spanish Black turkeys were crossbred with Eastern wild turkeys to produce the variety called the Bronze. These birds took on the naturally iridescent coloration of their wild parentage and looked very similar to the wild birds of the region, although larger and with a more agreeable temperament. These turkeys were capable of reproducing naturally, lived long lives, and had a relatively slow growth rate. They were able to put on ample fat and naturally had mostly dark-colored meat with small breasts. This turkey, what’s now often known as the Standard Bronze, was the most popular turkey in the United States until the middle of the 20th century when it was supplanted by the now-ubiquitous Broad-Breasted White.
Heritage Turkeys A heritage turkey is a one of several varieties of domesticated turkey that shows the characteristics historically associated with the species, many of which are largely absent in the current commercially-produced versions. Although the term “heritage turkey” is not strictly regulated by the federal government, unlike terms such as “organic,” it does in fact have a strict definition within the poultry industry. For a variety of turkey to be classified as heritage, it must display the following characteristics: a natural ability to mate without human intervention, long reproductive lifespan, and slow growth rate. These may seem like relatively simple or unremarkable characteristics. But in reality, nearly all commercially produced turkeys bred in the United States cannot meet any of these requirements.
The most popular modern domesticated turkey, the Broad-Breasted White, is almost entirely incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination and reaches its market weight between 14 to 18 weeks of age (compared to 28 weeks for a heritage turkey). Even if they’re not slaughtered immediately upon reaching market weight, these birds can rarely live beyond 6 months of age due to chronic illnesses that have resulted from selective breeding.
As a group, there are more than 10 breeds of turkey recognized as heritage birds. These include Bronze, Spanish Black, Buff, Bourbon Red, Holland White, Narraganset, Slate, Royal Palm, Midget White, and Auburn. Some of these breeds such as the Bronze and Narraganset trace their origins to the original colonists of New England, while others including the Bourbon Red and Royal Palm came about more recently in the early 20th century. Despite different coloration and size, all of these turkey breeds display the characteristics listed above and thus are accepted by the American Poultry Association as true heritage breeds.
Why Buy Heritage? The reality for most folks is the choice of which turkey to serve at Thanksgiving or Christmas is mostly a matter of cost, availability, and convenience. And, however much we’d like it, a true wild turkey that runs and flies to stay alive just doesn’t bake well whole for the big family meal. Without a doubt the giant inexpensive turkeys found in the fridge of your local grocery store will win out over the heritage turkey in all of the above categories. The cost of a heritage bird is often upwards of four times as much as the more common domestic offerings.
Additionally, the availability of heritage birds, although improving, is relatively scarce in comparison to their domestic counterparts. This year an estimated 230 million turkeys will be sold to market, with only 25,000 of them being heritage birds. This a big jump from the 1,500 heritage turkeys remaining in known existence in 1997, but still does not even make up 0.01% of all the turkeys sold in the United States.
As far as convenience is concerned, it's standard operating procedure for most consumers to arrive at the grocery store a few days before Thanksgiving and purchase the turkey of their choice—although even that may be affected by supply chain issues this year. However, many farms raising heritage turkeys require reservations be made for their birds six months or more in advance. While completely reasonable, this sort of planning ahead is simply not common practice for most American consumers.
So, why buy a heritage turkey? Their greatest attributes today are the exact same that they were in the early 18th century: superior flavor and nutrition. Heritage birds will be smaller than their grocery store counterparts thanks in part to genetics, as well lacking the water, chemicals, and preservatives that are routinely pumped into commodity turkeys before heading to the store. This smaller size allows you to cook them more evenly and quickly, resulting in a more succulent and moist bird.
The naturally high fat content of heritage turkeys bastes the bird as it cooks and provides a source of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Additionally, the lack of antibiotics, chemicals, and preservatives, both during the life cycle of the bird and after processing, ensures that you’re feeding your family meat that is free of any unwanted additives. What these birds may lack in economics they more than make up for on the dinner table.
While heritage turkeys certainly are more expensive to raise and consequently to purchase, they are without a doubt the closest product to wild turkeys while retaining some of that domestic plumpness. The benefits they possess, both as an animal to raise yourself or one to source from a small family farm, far outweigh their shortcomings. In fact, our own Janis Putelis is trying his hand at raising Standard Bronze Turkeys this year. Of course, if you don’t want to fork out the cost of a heritage bird but also don’t want to serve your family a butterball this year, you can try out turkey hunting and plate up a wild bird this holiday season.