I love heirlooms! Call me a foodie if you will, but I love their unique flavors and slight imperfections. I love the funky shapes and colors that please my eyes as much as they do my taste buds. And I will happily go out of my way to try and support these unique varieties any time I can. There is something particularly alluring to me about these unique foods, chosen and cherished for their flavor—a rarity in today’s modern food system where productivity and profit are valued above all else. Heirloom foods are a connection to our past and a way to preserve variety for the future. They have their seasons, of course, and while you may be familiar with many of the heirlooms of summer, you may not be as familiar with another type of fall heirloom… the heritage turkey.
What is a heritage turkey?
A heritage turkey is the heirloom of turkeys. These birds are native to the Americas and have great names like the Standard Bronze and the Narragansett and Bourbon Red. They are the turkeys that colonists bred in the 1800s, turkeys that closely resemble their wild cousins; in fact, some breeds were a result of breeding domesticated European turkeys with wild turkeys. According to The Livestock Conservancy, a heritage turkey must mate naturally, have a long lifespan spent outdoors, and a slow growth rate. That may sound pretty simple, but only eight varieties are recognized as heritage by the Standard of Perfection set by the American Poultry Association, and they make up less than one percent of the turkeys sold each year.
The Broad Breasted White, the breed of turkey that makes up more than 99 percent of the turkeys sold in the United States today, is a far cry from its wild cousins. These birds—bred to grow fast and to have a disproportionate amount of breast meat—made their way onto American tables in the 1960s. They can’t fly or breed (commercial breeding for size and meat production has resulted in a loss of these birds’ ability to produce fertile eggs; they have to be artificially inseminated), and they reach marketable weight in half the time and on less feed, making them cheap. Perhaps their most disappointing trait is a loss of flavor; the meat from these birds tends to be bland so many companies rely on injecting their turkeys with a solution of water, salt, spices, and “flavors.” (It should be noted that not all Broad Breasted White turkeys are bland and pumped full of solution—we are proud to carry the highest quality of this variety should you want to stick with a standard turkey.)
Heritage turkeys stand in stark contrast to the Broad Breasted Whites of today.
Not only are they brightly colored and almost regal in their posture, but they still run, fly, and mate. They spend their days eating bugs, grubs, and grass outdoors. They grow slowly, taking around 28 weeks to reach market weight, and conveniently for us, the poults that hatch from the eggs they naturally lay in the spring reach this weight right around Thanksgiving. They live, eat, and breed like a turkey should. And of course the Mary’s Heritage Turkeys we carry here at Natural Grocers are never given antibiotics (hormones are never allowed in poultry production) and are only given non-GMO supplemental feed. All of these factors make a heritage turkey one of the most humanely raised choices available. (To see these turkeys in action, check out this video from Mary’s Turkeys.)
So how does a heritage turkey taste?
America’s Test Kitchen tasters describe heritage turkeys as having a rich, satisfying taste and a tender, moist texture. After tasting a Narragansett turkey for the first time Michael Pollan said, “Now I understood…why eating turkey had once been considered such a great treat.” Heritage turkeys are delicious all on their own—they don’t need to be brined or drowned in elaborately-prepared gravy to be delicious (although I won’t hold it against you if you do!). In general, they tend to be smaller birds and are well proportioned, with a larger quantity of flavorful dark meat (they look more like a lean athlete than a doughy couch potato). Although the breasts are smaller than their broad-breasted cousins, they too are far more flavorful. They taste like turkey, but the best, most flavorful turkey you’ve ever had.
There is more to a heritage turkey than just great taste though.
Fifteen years ago practically no one, except a few select breed conservationists, even knew what a heritage turkey was. But in 2003 a campaign was launched to save them from extinction and foodies everywhere came to the rescue! Saving these breeds meant saving a piece of American history, and through the work of small-scale farmers and the Slow Food movement, these birds are making a comeback. Mary’s Turkeys was one of the small family farms that stepped up and started raising heritage turkeys in 2003 and Natural Grocers started selling them soon after.
For those of us focused on quality and taste, who want to have a connection to how our food was produced, intrigued by new (old) foods, concerned with animal welfare, and want to make the turkey the true centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, the heritage turkey is the answer. Even if you’re just a bit curious, consider getting a small heritage turkey to serve alongside your regular organic turkey. With more history, more character, and more flavor, a heritage turkey is sure to please every turkey-eater at the table!
For tips on cooking a heritage turkey check out: http://heritagefoodsusa.com/blog/6-thanksgiving-turkey-mistakes/
 Reese FR, Bender M, Sponenber DP, Williamson D, Beranger J. Selecting Your Best Turkeys for Breeding. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Available at: https://livestockconservancy.org/images/uploads/docs/turkeys_chapter1.pdf