November 24, 2012 in Washington Voices

Heritage turkeys rich in taste, history

Pat Munts
 
JOHN CHURCHMAN photo

Bourbon Reds like this one are among Heritage Breed birds.
(Full-size photo)

You haven’t tasted a turkey until you’ve sampled a fresh, locally-grown heritage breed turkey. Gone is the dry meat and bland flavor of the traditional bird. In its place is a bird with a moist, rich flavor you can’t beat.

Wild turkeys are native to North America. Several subspecies evolved in a wide range of habitats from the northern Rockies to southern Arizona, Florida, the eastern U.S. and central Mexico. They were a staple of many American Indian civilizations.

The Spanish encountered turkeys when they colonized Mexico in the 1500s and took the game birds back to Europe. Once in Europe, the birds were domesticated and new breeds were developed over time. Eventually, when the Puritans made their journey to eastern North America, they brought turkeys with them. Little did they know they were completing a circle.

Over time many different breeds developed both here and in Europe. Some remained local breeds, others found a wider range. Each breed had its own characteristics in flavor, plumage, feed thriftiness and hardiness. They came with names like Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland and Royal Palm. Their names often referred to their colorful plumage. Over time the larger, heavy-meated breeds became more popular until the Broad Breasted White became the industrial market standard in the 1960s. By 1991, many of these old heritage breeds were nearly gone from the farmyard.

They would have died out completely if it hadn’t been for a few people who realized the value of these turkey breeds and other livestock that once were very common on American farms. They represented a huge pool of biodiversity that had developed over centuries and because of their varied genetics could potentially be a source of animals if a major disease were to hit the Broad Breasted White turkeys.

Today, groups like the Heritage Turkey Foundation and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are working to preserve breeding stock for dozens of different animals and helping many sustainability-minded farmers develop herds and flocks.

It is not easy to find heritage turkeys on the open market in Spokane. Many growers in the region take orders in the spring from people who have found their way to them through farmers markets, friends and foodie groups. They are not cheap to buy, either, costing $4 a pound or more. They take longer to raise than the factory farm wonders and quality feed is expensive. Often you won’t know what weight turkey you will be getting until you go to the farm to pick it up.

Here is an interesting fact of American history and turkeys: if Ben Franklin had his way, our national bird would have been a turkey. In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Franklin extolled the virtues of the wild turkey over the bald eagle. He felt the eagle had a bad moral character and the turkey was much more likely to defend what was his.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for over 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnw gardening.com.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email