This Thanksgiving, you’ll be tempted by many mouth-watering birds hanging out in the supermarket coolers. Many consumers assume that “a bird is just a bird,” and that a little bit of basting will be all they need to ensure a juicy, tasty specimen. However, the Tom Turkey we know and love has come a long way from his predecessors – for better or for worse.
The commercial turkeys we typically find in our supermarket coolers have been genetically engineered to have broad breasts with lots of white meat. Marian Burros of the NY Times wrote, “The turkey you’ll be eating could never exist in nature. After 50 years of over-engineering, it has morphed into a bizarre, ungainly beast that can no longer run [or] fly.” (11/21/01) She goes on to call the turkeys we’re most familiar with “a blowzy specimen with short stubby legs” whose “disproportionate supply of white meat has come at the expense of taste and texture.” There is concern that industrial turkeys are being bred for a narrow range of characteristics, they’re losing their ability to mate on their own (because their breasts are too large to mount), and they’re being plagued by problems like infertility, bone and joint problems, hypertension, suppressed immune systems and ruptured aortas. People began to look for healthier options.
More recently, conservationists have called for a revival of heritage turkeys, which are closer to wild turkeys. When the pilgrims first enjoyed their turkeys in Rhode Island, Kentucky and New Jersey, there was a limitless supply. Today, just 23 farms have flocks of over 100 heritage birds. These turkeys are free-range animals, flying, exercising and eating more varied diets out in their large pastures. Instead of rushing production and slaughtering the turkeys at 3 to 3.5 months, the breeders of heritage turkeys wait until 5 or 6 months – after the turkey has put on a layer of fat – which leads to a naturally juicier, more sumptuous bird.
Heritage turkeys contain higher levels of good Omega-3 fatty acids, which protect the heart by reducing levels of heart-disease-causing triglycerides. This is due to their varied diet on the range and their level of exercise.
The flavor is richer, fuller in flavor and juicier than commercial birds
This choice keeps biodiversity alive and well, protecting the overall supply of turkeys from being wiped out by virus, bacteria or environmental stress.
The birds live a more humane life, living outdoors on pastures and mating naturally
These turkeys also have healthier, natural immune systems and do not receive injections of hormones or antibiotics