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Thanksgiving Heritage Turkeys: To Buy or Not to Buy?

How do you decide which turkey to buy?

Heritage Turkeys
Heritage Turkeys

It's a fact: Ben Franklin never thought the bald eagle should have been our national symbol. Rather, he considered the turkey a braver bird. The eagle, Franklin said, was lazy. It was dishonest, a thief, and a "rank coward." And, unlike the indigenous turkey, an intercontinental interloper, too.

Franklin ate turkeys—lots of people did back then—and it's safe to say that he would not have recognized the kinds of turkeys that most of us consume. Rather, he would have eaten what we today call heritage turkeys, or breeds of birds who lineages can be traced back to—and beyond—Franklin's time. But he would have called them turkeys. Just plain old turkeys.

Today, heritage birds are back, especially in regard to Thanksgiving. For confirmation just dial up your local butcher. Most of them carry heritage birds during the holiday season. But whether or not you should consider one for your own Turkey Day dinner depends on several factors.

The Cost

Since a heritage bird averages around $5 a pound, they're far more expensive than your average turkey. If you buy a 25-pound bird for thanksgiving, that turkey could even cost you more than $200.

But, says Reg Keddie, manager of Aurora Valley Poultry Farm, the cost of raising those birds is also high. Aurora Valley Poultry Farm is located less than 30 miles from Portland, and it caters to our increased appetite for free-range animals raised on organic feed within an hour's drive of Portland. That's exactly how Keddie raises turkeys. But it's not cheap.

"An egg alone costs $2.50 to $3.50, and then, it has to hatch."

An egg alone costs $2.50 to $3.50, and then, it has to hatch. When it does, Keddie has to feed and grow the new bird, and at present, he says that organic feed can cost as much as $700 to $1,000 a ton, or 40 to 50 cents per pound, which would probably mean a lot to you if you were a poultry farmer. Regardless, it adds up: All in all, it ends up costing $40 to $50 just to hatch and feed one turkey.

But, if those birds are going to be considered free-rangers, he also has to provide them with at least 10 weeks to wander around his farm eating organic corn and soy products, as well as grass, straw, and insects. Once the birds reach 20 to 23 weeks of age, he harvests them and sends them directly to Whole Foods (his farm has an exclusive deal with stores in Washington and Oregon).

So that's why they're spendy—it simply costs more to hatch and raise them.

But what about taste? Are they any good?

The Taste

Personally, Keddie likes the way a heritage bird tastes. To him, it tastes better than a conventionally raised bird—but he also admits that, based on his work, he's biased.

So we reached out to Aaron Silverman—a former heritage turkey farmer at Greener Pastures Poultry (1998 to 2006) and current owner of Tails & Trotters. Silverman says heritage birds just don't do it for him. Ultimately, Silverman says, a turkey's genetics don't really matter—what matters is how you raise it.

Here's the kicker: Back in his Greener Pastures days, Silverman invited Slow Food members living in Eugene to the Marche restaurant to let them blindly sample birds that the restaurant had prepared. Some of those birds were heritage, others weren't; but all of them were raised free-range on the same feeds. Invariably, he says, most people chose the other birds over the heritage breeds.

"Invariably, he says, most people chose the other birds over the heritage breeds."

Eugene's Slow Fooders were disappointed that there wasn't enough breast meat on the old birds (heritage birds are single-breasted, and have much more dark meat than an average bird, and their legs and thighs are much more robust in texture and size). He says they were also disappointed by the heritage turkey's gaminess. Keddie says the birds do have a much stronger poultry flavor, but like anything, how you cook it plays a huge role in flavor.

The Decision

For this Thanksgiving, Keddie says he's cooking a heritage bird. Actually, because he's feeding about 20 people, he's going to cook three. He just won't cook them whole. "I stopped doing that a long time ago," he says. "It take too long." Instead, he'll butcher them into smaller pieces and smoke them until they're nicely cooked through.

Silverman says turkey is out once again this year at his house, becuase, after eight years of processing turkeys, he just isn't the biggest fan of turkey. In fact, he doesn't plan on doing much of anything. Since 30 percent of his business goes down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, he's taking the day off. He might make a pie, and sample and enjoy some pâtes and rillettes from his shop. Other than that, he's going to lay low. He did provide one caveat: If friends invite him and his wife to their Thanksgiving Day dinner and they're serving turkey, he will eat it. He just won't want to.

So what about you? If you're interested in taking a heritage bird for a spin this Thanksgiving to see what the fuss is all about, you have plenty of options. Just make sure to dial your favorite butcher and order yours forthwith, because supplies are indeed limited.

Heritage turkeys can be found in Portland at Chop Butchery, Food Front Cooperative Grocery, Sheridan Fruit Company, or at any of your local New Seasons or Whole Foods markets.

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