The Spirit of Thanksgiving Past

Heritage breed turkeys keep tradition at the table

heritage turkeys

Written By

Devon Karn

Written on

September 01 , 2010

When Vermont families sat down to Thanksgiving spreads a hundred years ago, their turkeys were a whole different animal. Quite literally. They were beautiful birds whose radiant feathers displayed hues of deep reddish brown, bronze, pure white, iridescent charcoal, or houndstooth patterns of black and white. Mobile and small, they were very distant cousins to the huge, white turkeys that fill supermarket coolers today.

What we now call heritage breed turkeys—or heirloom breeds—were bred in the United States and Europe over several centuries. As cataloged in the American Poultry Association’s Turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874, these breeds included the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett, and White Holland. Back then, and as late as the 1950s, breeds that populated farm and homestead turkey flocks included several different kinds of turkeys, each with their own habits and flavors.

Nowadays, more than 90 percent of the turkeys Americans serve at Thanksgiving are Broad Breasted Whites, a breed that was commercially bred to produce high volumes of white meat quickly and inexpensively. While pasture-raised Broad Breasted Whites are free to wander outdoors, the overwhelming majority are factory produced and lead sedentary lives in crowded, poorly ventilated warehouses that often result in injury and disease to the birds.

As Broad Breasted Whites became the holiday centerpiece of choice, heirloom breeds fell out of favor, and some have become nearly extinct—some with fewer than 100 mating pairs left in existence. It is this history and scarcity that led John and Rocio Clark of Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park to begin adding heritage breed turkeys to their family’s grass-based organic meat, poultry, and dairy farm.

“If no one buys them, they’re gone,” John says. “But when people choose to utilize them, they’ll continue to exist.”

While Applecheek may breed their own flock in the future, for now the farm gets its turkeys as day-old chicks from specialty breeders who are working to keep these uniquely American poultry groups going. For the past decade, organizations like the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, the Rare Heritage Turkey Association, and Slow Food USA have expanded their efforts to not only conserve rare breeds and genetic diversity in livestock, but to educate consumers about their importance and value to our country’s culinary pursuits. Thanks to their work, the breeds are making slow but measurable comeback at small family farms around the country, part of a growing number of nearly lost livestock, fruit, and vegetable varieties that bring diversity and stability to American agriculture and pleasure to our palates.

Applecheek’s flock includes rare White Holland turkeys—rounder, ruffled versions of regular white turkeys, with showier plumage—and the stately Standard Bronze. These look strikingly like the wild turkeys that lurk along the brush lines of Vermont pastures and roadsides, or the quintessential Tom Turkey illustrations that grace paper Thanksgiving decorations. The toms are dark, stoic, and very serious looking, with boastful tail displays; the females are similar, with duller coloring and slimmer figures.

While other farms across the state may keep a smaller flock of heritage turkeys to share with friends and neighbors, Applecheek is one of the few farms that raises heritage birds for market. Other farms have raised small flocks for market in the past, but higher input costs, lower consumer demand, and frequent predator kills due to higher flight risk led the farm to turn its attention elsewhere.

Besides being harder to find, heritage breed turkeys are very different in behavior, appearance, and flavor than Broad Breasted Whites. Unlike their unnaturally large-breasted relatives, heritage turkeys are more proportionately muscled and can run, fly, and mate on their own. They also take longer to reach market weight; whereas common turkeys take only three or four months to reach weights of 12 to 30 pounds, a typical six-month span for a heritage breed yields weights of 7 to 18 pounds at slaughter.

Longer life spans give the heritage breeds enough time to develop a thin layer of fat beneath their feathers, which not only imparts a rich flavor to the birds while cooking, but also helps them survive the unseasonable cold snaps that often grace Vermont’s late autumn days. Two years ago, a huge snowstorm hit Hyde Park right before Thanksgiving. Applecheek’s Broad Breasted turkeys nearly froze to death; they all had to be moved quickly into the barn and surrounded by heat lamps until they recovered. The heritage flock, on the other hand, wandered around in the snow all afternoon—a bit confused by their newly white surroundings, but unfazed by the cold.

The heritage turkeys are raised on an expanse of open field where the dark silhouette of Mt. Elmore is visible on the horizon. They congregate in a loose mesh enclosure around their main shelter, an airy white shed mounted on large, sleigh-like skids that can be easily dragged to fresh ground every day. The turkeys generally follow the farm’s dairy cows around the pasture, happily pecking at grass conveniently shortened by the cows and eating up all the bugs and clover they can find.

According to John, one of the White Holland turkeys literally “flew the coop” a few years ago to hang out with a flock of wild turkeys that often wanders the farm’s pastures. The heritage turkey would split his time between the enclosure and the wild bunch, sometimes returning to the pen in the evening and sometimes staying out with his buddies ’til the early hours of the morning. While it’s nice that the turkeys can get out and socialize as they will, John prefers they stay closer to home to avoid the dangers posed by predators like the mink, coyotes, raccoons, weasels, and dogs that stalk the flock every few days. The farm has lost more than half its flock in the past to escapees that don’t make it back to the pen.

The turkeys explore the yard like toddlers. If one finds something shiny or interesting to inspect, the others will begin to gather in the same spot to see what the fuss is about and then drift off to follow their own fancy. They move around in a chattering flock that meanders its way around the enclosure, murmuring their signature “gobble gobble” with each new discovery.

Heritage turkeys behave as differently in the kitchen as they do in the pasture. Their active lives and foraged, protein-rich diets mean that the bird is virtually all dark meat. They can be cooked at higher temperatures for shorter periods of time without drying out; a 10-pound bird can take as little as an hour and a half in a 450-degree oven to come out browned, moist, and perfectly done. The result is a flavorful turkey with crispy skin and drippings that make a rich, dark gravy.

The Clarks rub maple syrup, rosemary, and butter under the skin before roasting for a buttery sweetness that complements the dark meat (see sidebar for recipe); others salt and pepper the bird and roast it on a bed of onions cut into rings, which caramelize in the turkey’s juices as it cooks. Baked winter squash, stuffings of nuts and local fruit, and sides featuring bacon and woody herbs are all ideal partners to these savory turkeys.

Happily, the Applecheek birds sell out every year. Annual buyers include not only Vermonters, but also folks who drive up from New York City or New Hampshire for their holiday staples. Many people buy a turkey and take it with them to family gatherings held elsewhere; a few years ago, one turkey even traveled in an airplane’s overhead compartment all the way to Thanksgiving dinner.

Taste and tradition do come at a price, though. While the per-pound price of a heritage turkey is comparable to other organic, pasture-raised meats like beef or pork roast, it is a few dollars higher than organic, pasture-raised Broad Breasted turkeys. The price reflects the fact that it costs more to raise them. But when so much anticipation surrounds this showpiece of the holiday meal, the historic preservation and unrivaled taste that saturates every piece of these special birds might just be worth every penny.

To find other farms in Vermont that sell heritage turkeys go to LocalHarvest.com

Applecheek’s heritage turkeys can be reserved by size in advance; they’re butchered on the farm and available fresh for pickup two days before Thanksgiving. To order, visit the farm at applecheekfarm.com or call 802-888-4482.

About the Author

Devon Karn

Devon Karn

Devon Karn is a freelance copywriter who writes, gardens, and revels in Vermont’s bounty from her historic Burlington neighborhood.

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