Taking Back Turkey Day
Traditions may keep us tied to our cultural narratives, but the traditional Thanksgiving feast is one story with a disappointing ending. The now-ubiquitous feast bird—the Broad-Breasted White turkey—has been factory farmed into a lackluster protein, one that’s flavorless and dry and punishes anyone who attempts to serve it sans gravy.
For the ultimate feast, skip thoughts of tradition. Instead, focus on heritage, as in Heritage Foods USA. Heritage turkeys are breeds such as Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Standard Bronze, and others that have been kept pure for hundreds of years. These birds have achieved the American Poultry Association’s “Standard of Perfection,” which means they meet three requirements. First, they are naturally mated. Second, they enjoy a long, productive outdoor lifespan. And third, they grow slowly.
Meeting those standards leads to a minor revelation that harkens back to the time when animals tasted like . . . well, animals.
“Our turkeys grow 300 times slower than the industrial growers,” says Frank Reese, the owner of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch and a Heritage Foods turkey legend. “They haven’t been hybridized or engineered, so they have a much more intense flavor. I’ve had numerous people tell me that it was the first time in their life they’ve tasted turkey.”
The dark meat of a Good Shepherd turkey is four to five times darker than that of a store-bought bird, says Reese, thanks to a free-range lifestyle, which oxygenates the meat (bringing more hemoglobin to the muscle). “The whiter the meat, the poorer the nutrition and quality,” he explains. Reese also notes a scientific study that found his birds to have 600 percent more mitochondria than factory birds. Trust us; that’s a good thing. “The best-tasting turkey in the world is a 2- or 3-year-old Standard Bronzed Tom,” Reese says. “My mom and grandma always cooked that; but you’d have to come down to my farm to get one.”
You’d also have to make arrangements much earlier in the year. It may be too late to order a Heritage Foods turkey this season; so while we advocate making plans now for 2014, you may want to consider bucking the turkey altogether this year. Turkeys, after all, weren’t even on the Pilgrims’ menu. Neither was stuffing—flour was hard to come by—pumpkin pie, cranberries, or even potatoes (most Europeans still viewed spuds as the harbingers of death).
Multiple chefs—including the James Beard Award nominee Jason Knibb (of Nine-Ten in La Jolla, Calif.) and Gavin Kaysen (of Café Boulud in Manhattan)—named squab their ultimate feast bird. “The squab from Four Story Hill Farms has a purple tone when cooked and is gamey but not over the top,” says Kaysen. “It’s as if you went out and killed the bird yourself; it’s that fresh.”