But, I’m stalling. Turkeys - I feel an obligation to acknowledge the theme this week. I heard that turkey breeding for our tables has obliterated the characteristics common to a turkey’s ancestors. Now, I know I have heard this for many Thanksgiving seasons, but it’s time for me to delve a bit deeper. No ace research skills here, simple Google and Wikipedia digging, but a cornucopia of information before the coffee was brewed (in a fry pan, strained over the sink – another story for later). Okay, I used the cornucopia on purpose. It is written somewhere that one must use the cornucopia during Thanksgiving and we all must eat turkey. When I was a kid in the fifties, I don’t think most people considered turkey as food suitable for the rest of the year. The other thing that stands out in my mind is how complicated the preparation is and how women (of course) needed to wake up pre-dawn to get the turkey into the oven. It was treated as some esoteric ritual and filled with potential disaster.
Imagine my surprise when the executive chef at the Jesuit community where I was hired to cook taught me how to fix turkey. We turned the commercial ovens up to 450-500 degrees or so and essentially seared the birds, dropped the ovens back down. I stuffed the cavities with quartered onions, Granny Smith apples, herbs and I also used white wine in the cavity and the pan – basting was included. Anyway, it wasn’t the silly production of manufactured difficulty of my youth. From then on, turkey was a regular part of my family cooking, with stocks made from the meat and bones after each time became habit. The stock was always put into the refrigerator to separate, with the fat to be skimmed off before I made soup or froze the stock. I love the taste, the smell and the frugal wonder of so many meals from one bird. Turkey has always meant either a holiday meal or a frugal menu item. I have not thought about turkeys at all – except to eat – in my life. Correction, coloration has also figured into my experience as I described in the opening.
Turkeys are highly individual birds. The females are as maternal as any mother hen. The males (stags) fluff up their fine feathers and 'gobble', to establish their role as protector of the harem. The wild turkey flies at speeds of up to 50 mph and roosts in tree tops. Stags weigh around 17 lbs, females considerably less. Turkeys like to roam in woodland, eating insects and vegetation. Seeds and berries are a favorite food.This is a description of the turkey within nature. The photograph up in a tree: Wild mother turkey protecting her young. by Gary W. Griffen
Contrast this with corporate ownership. (Insert creepy, ominous music here.)
For over 35 years, the overwhelming majority of the 280 million turkeys produced in North America each year have been the product of a few genetic strains of Broad Breasted White. The breeding stock for these birds are owned by just three multinational corporations: Hybrid Turkeys of Ontario, Canada, British United Turkeys of America in Lewisburg, West Virginia, and Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Sonoma, California.
The emphasis is mine. Food sources owned by a corporation? Really bad idea.
According to a British source,
. . . most turkeys live crammed together in dimly-lit windowless sheds. 25,000 in one shed is typical of the bigger units. Though not caged, turkeys nearing slaughter weight have little more floor space to themselves than a battery hen. Moving around the shed becomes a stressful challenge and the overcrowding induces aggression. Some, reared especially for the Christmas trade, are kept in 'pole barns', in natural daylight. These may have a little more room, but are still kept in grossly overcrowded conditions.
The description of conditions is vile. There are several groups who began working together to save the heritage turkeys.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), Slow Food USA, the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPAA), and a few hundred key poultry enthusiasts launched a major effort to restore breeding populations of heritage turkeys in the late 20th century.Just as with heritage seeds, we owe a debt of gratitude to the individual farmers across the United States (and other countries as well) for keeping the biodiversity of turkey breeds alive when selective breeding of the corporations have all but eliminated hundreds of breeds in favor of the one, Broad Breasted White. Turkeys were (are) useful for keeping insect populations down. Greenpa has written extensively about bringing in domesticated birds to keep the tick population in check on his property. And yes, there is violence in nature. Greenpa’s saga is filled with birds being eaten by each other, predators and his own dog. But, this kind of struggle is in no way comparable to the factory farm.
. . . the Heritage Breeds still exist and are making a comeback. Most breeds of heritage turkey were developed in the United States and Europe over hundreds of years, and were identified in the American Poultry Association's turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874. These breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Later added to the standard were the Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White.
It is about flavor and it is about the resilience of our food supplies with biodiversity and it is about simply respecting life.
This time of year there will be birds sold as heritage which are not.
To be a true heritage turkey, birds must meet three specific criteria.
The first criterion is that heritage turkeys are able to mate naturally with no intervention from humans, and with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. Hens can lay fertile eggs, and brood their clutches to hatching. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, birds must be the result of natural reproduction in order to truly be called heritage turkeys.
Long productive lifespan
Except for a few flocks of toms kept for semen production, commercial turkeys generally never live past the point at which they reach market weight. But true heritage turkeys are capable of a full, productive lifespan just like wild turkeys. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years. They are also more well-suited for outdoor and/or free range conditions.
Slow growth rate
All heritage turkeys have a relatively slow to moderate rate of growth. Turkeys raised in industrial agricultural are slaughtered at 14 to 18 weeks of age, while heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.
Thanksgiving is a week away. I found through the Heritage Link that there is a store in my community that carries Heritage poultry. But, I am not sure. I have spent several days letting my community know that I won’t be working with them to figure out a group Thanksgiving. I think my son and I will do something. We spoke in the summer about fixing Middle Eastern dishes. I just don’t know what that day will be for now. But, I feel a lot smarter about turkeys.Updates: Unsurprisingly there are other posts on the turkey and I will add links as I discover them. Crunchy Chicken