A Story of Heritage Turkey

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Turkey is the iconic American bird. So it’s only fitting that it takes center stage for that iconic American holiday: Thanksgiving. The species is native to the Americas, but many of the breeds that populated our country’s agricultural landscape throughout the centuries were a mix of indigenous wild turkeys and domesticated ones bred in Europe from stock originally exported from the New World. So from early on, in quintessential American fashion, the turkey became a cultural hybrid.


But there’s more to the story. To me, turkeys are a living illustration of how much our country’s food culture has changed in the past 50 years.

For hundreds of years, up until the mid-20th century, farmers bred turkeys for flavor, beauty and yield. Each breed was developed for a different purpose: Narragansetts were good foragers where food was scarce, the Bourbon Red was prized for its meat and the Standard Bronze for its beautiful plumage. By the 1950s though, as our food system became more industrialized and turkey breast became a deli standard, two of those factors—flavor and beauty—fell from consideration. After all, people no longer bought turkeys from their nearest turkey farmer, they bought it prepackaged (and probably frozen) from one of the burgeoning supermarkets in the area.

Turkey breeders began selecting for birds that could be developed quickly, could efficiently convert food into the coveted breast meat and would have flawless skin once plucked. Thus the Broad Breasted White, in a time when Wonder Bread and Twinkies were considered modern miracles, took the market by storm. Today, they make up about 99% of the turkey market in America, and many of those other breeds—what we now call heritage turkeys—are close to extinction.

What Are Heritage Turkeys? There are roughly a dozen varieties of heritage turkeys, seven of which were recognized back in 1874 in the first edition of the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection—the official guide to breed standards for all types of poultry. Technically, the term “heritage turkey” is defined by these three characteristics:

  • They can mate naturally. This may sound self-evident, but the Broad Breasted White—because of its short breast and legs—cannot mate on its own and must be artificially inseminated in order to reproduce.
  • They must be able to live a productive life outside in their natural environment. In contrast, heirlooms’ buxom cousins are much less hardy and more prone to disease.
  • They must have a slow (some might say “normal”) growth rate. Mass-produced turkeys develop so quickly that their muscles can outpace the rest of their bodies.

It’s ironic to me that something has to be defined with a fancy moniker like “heritage” to say it can live a normal, healthy life in a natural environment and that what we take for granted as “turkey” is something that came from generations of artificial insemination, doesn’t develop properly and doesn’t have the fortitude to live in its native habitat.

Why Would I Want to Buy a Heritage Turkey? The easy answer is incredibly flavorful, juicy meat. The more in-depth answer is, by serving up a heritage turkey you’re helping save them from disappearing altogether. Four of the roughly dozen heritage turkey breeds are listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste as near extinction. The more demand there is for these heritage breeds, the more incentive farmers will have to raise them.

How Are They Different? True heritage birds look, well, scrawny. They have longer breast bones and legs, making their breast look more pup tent than plump. They also layer on fat differently, since they’re essentially a wild animal, so you’re likely to find large deposits towards the neck rather than distributed throughout. While the breast meat doesn’t taste enormously different, the dark meat is redder with a much richer flavor, almost like that of duck or goose.

Do I Have to Cook a Heritage Bird Differently? Because heritage birds have smaller breasts, they cook faster and can dry out easily. Cook the bird until a thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh (without touching bone) reads 145F-150F (it will continue to cook as it rests).

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Miso- and Herb-Rubbed Applewood Smoked Heritage Turkey

Cooking a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving connects you to our country’s history and the farmers dedicated to preserving heritage breeds . . . and to some tasty meat. The miso in this rub acts almost like a light brine, only without any of the mess.

2 cloves garlic, smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup white miso
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup mixed, minced herbs
1 (12-pound) heritage turkey

Mash the garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper (don’t use too much salt or the bird will be too salty). In a small bowl, mix together garlic, miso, butter and herbs.

Very carefully work your fingers under the skin and rub the mixture all over the breast and legs. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, soak 2 cups applewood chips in cold water for 30 minutes.

Preheat the grill.

Drain and transfer chips to a smoke box (or create a tray from heavy-duty foil). Lift up cooking grates on the grill and place the chip tray directly on the burner (when grilling the bird, you’ll be using direct heat, which means only one burner will be on . . . place the chip tray on that burner). Replace the cooking grates and turn all burners to high.

When grill is hot, turn off all burners but the one the wood chips are resting on (leave that one on high) and adjust the heat so the temperature stays around 325F. Spray a “V” roasting rack with cooking spray, place the turkey breast-side down, and position in the middle of the indirect heat area. Close the cover and cook for 2 hours, turning the rack 180 degrees halfway through.

After 2 hours, flip the bird over head-to-toe (so to speak—breast should be up now, and neck where the tail was) and grill for another 1 to 1-1/2 hours, turning the rack 180 degrees halfway through. Use a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the leg without touching bone to test if the turkey is done (should read 145F).

Take the turkey off the grill, tent loosely with foil and let rest for 20 minutes before carving.

Serves 12

  • http://JacquelineChurch.com Jacqueline Church

    I had a Narragansett last Thanksgiving and they are rangier birds – it was tasty though.

    Tonight I tried Bourbon Red for the first time, it was delicious too and probably brined. I’m hoping this introduction and things like the Saveur story on Frank Reese of Good Shepard Farm will encourage more people to try heritage birds. We’re one pathogen mutation away from total disaster as something like 90% of the commercial birds are one breed. Taste, breed diversity, heirloom preservation, species conservation all are good reasons to choose a heritage bird. Supporting local heritage farmers this way, on this holiday seems fitting.

    More soon!

  • http://jilloconnorcooks.com Jill oconnor

    Another interesting and thoughtful article. Heritage birds sound deliciously different than the ‘ol butterball. Think I’ll try one. Thanks, Lia.

  • http://nosugarandspice.com Chloe (No Sugar and Spice)

    I need to talk to my family about heritage turkeys, we usually just get the white breasted ones from the grocery store and I know we’re missing out. Especially this Thanksgiving, with just the 5 of us all together we should splurge and support our local farms and traditions. Great article!

  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/devotay/ devotay

    Slow Food USA did a lot of work on preserving heritage breeds of turkeys a few years ago, to much success and acclaim. The story is told well on Slow Food Russian River’s website at


  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/liahuber/ Lia Huber

    Jackie . . . Good thoughts!

    Jill . . . Let us know what kind you get. Curious what you think of it.

    Chloe . . . Glad you like! Personally, I think they’re worth the splurge, but there are a variety of choices out there. It’s especially nice to, as you say, support a local farmer if there’s one raising heritage birds in your area.

  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/liahuber/ Lia Huber

    Kurt . . . So true. It seems to me that Slow Food really helped increase awareness of and spur demand for heritage turkeys in the marketplace. In fact, Sonoma County Slow food member Barbara Bowman of Boss Dog Marketing put together much of the marketing and promotion advice in the “How to Raise Heritage Turkeys” manual on the ALBC site, to give farmers the tools they need to promote the breeds they’re preserving. All good stuff!

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  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/alisoneats/ Alison Ashton

    I tried my first heritage turkey last night. My friends thought it was a Bourbon Red. De-licious! They’d brined it for 24 hours, then roasted it at a steady 350 F until the thigh meat reached 160 F. All the meat was wonderfully moist. Best of all–it tasted like turkey! It was the my favorite part of the meal, and I’m not usually a big fan of turkey.

  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/liahuber/ Lia Huber

    Sounds amazing, Alison. I have to admit to salivating over our friends’ smoked heritage bird last night when we stopped by for oysters. I’m hoping there’s leftovers . . .

  • http://www.jamieliving.blogspot.com Jamie G. Dougherty (JAMIE|LIVING)

    This was our third year having a heritage bird and it definitely didn’t disappoint. My husband invited friends over for leftovers yesterday which I was not happy about it. Too good to share ;) Marin Sun Farms is selling them until December. I can always pick up another one!

  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/liahuber/ Lia Huber

    Jamie . . . ooh, that’s good to know. I didn’t know Marin Sun Farms was selling them. Might have to pick one up myself . . . it seems no-one’s willing to share leftovers ;-).

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