Let’s talk turkey: Heritage birds are alternative festive fowl

Turkey is undoubtedly one of the best gifts that the New World has made to the Old.”

– Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

(1755-1826)

“TURKEY, n. A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.”

– Ambrose Bierce,

The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

It’s an icon and a strong symbol. Arguably, a turkey on the table is an essential component of Thanksgiving Day (with exceptions for those of us who don’t eat or like it). Whether we prefer white meat or dark (I like both), we may eat so much of it that its tryptophan makes us sleepy, although studies claim that effect may be more due to carbo – and perhaps alcohol – loading than the protein. We dream up uses for the leftovers. I use most of mine for sandwiches, turkey rice soup and turkey pot pie. But it is almost always there, the centerpiece of the table, turning a table full of holiday feasters into a Norman Rockwell tableau.

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Not everyone is crazy for turkey. My late father-in-law used to cook his ahead of time, slice it up and keep it warm and uncovered in the oven while he cooked the rest of the meal, which resulted in a less-than-stunning presentation and dry meat. But since the meal included a rich lasagna, his amazing spinach walnut stuffing and many other goodies, we didn’t mind that Angelo wasn’t a turkey fan and so lavished more attention on the feast’s other components.

I like it myself, more than chicken, even, and I’ve spent the last few Thanksgivings at my sister Calico’s, which sometimes includes a nicely brined bird that is sometimes fresh off her sister-in-law Nusie’s farm. When I’ve cooked the meal at home I’ve always just bought a Butterball and it was fine, but lately I’ve been thinking about how they are bred to be so broad-breasted they can’t run, fly or even mate, with artificial insemination required for reproduction. Food for thought, that. Raised buxom and miserable, full of antibiotics, their flesh injected with chemicals and water after slaughter. I’ve thought that there must be a more sensible, humane, and likely tastier way.

Enter the heirloom. Like tomatoes and apples, beasts raised for the table come in classic versions, too. Heritage breeds are making a comeback and people are snapping them up, even though the cost can in some places be over a hundred bucks a bird, and if you have it shipped, even higher. Is it worth it for leaner meat, amped-up flavor and a nod to the sustainable raising of animals?

Richard Biezynski of Northwind Farms in Tivoli raises both heritage and non-heritage breeds. The Heritage Bronze has long been a popular breed throughout history, named for the metallic sheen of its feathers. His non-heritage bird is a broad-breasted New Holland White. He raises both types naturally, with no additives to their feed, and they roam freely around their barns, outdoors when weather permits.

Northwind is a family operation, with all work done by Biezynski, his wife and son, and two helpers. He’s been raising turkeys 30 years, he told me. “I started out as a hippie, living in the barn. I had an outhouse,” he says. Hippie or not, he was a pioneer in naturally raised animals. He wanted to give his birds a natural feed without antibiotics or hormones and it just wasn’t available, so he mixed his own. Then Agway made a custom unmedicated feed for him.

When asked if the heritage breeds taste better, Biezynski hedges his bets. “It’s what you’re used to,” he says. “They’re both good. It’s really a matter of what you feed them, how they’re kept, not necessarily the variety of turkey.” Although he tells me that “all-natural” on a label is not regulated and merely means no salt or pepper has been added, he is committed to raising his birds as naturally as possible, in spite of the now astronomical cost of feed, especially the kind he uses. The flavor of his poultry sets it apart from commercial birds, and although I haven’t tried the turkey, his chicken is outstanding. (He also raises poussins, game hens and several kinds of ducks, and in the non-webbed feet department, pork, beef, rabbit, goat and lamb).

He says that the age and size of the turkey can affect the flavor as well, as the older the bird the more fat it has, and a slightly chubby bird will have more taste than a scrawny one. Six months is the maximum age for any turkey variety. The weather is a factor, as they grow more slowly in bad weather. The Heritage Bronze birds have been processed and frozen at 14 to 20 pounds, before they got too big. They will have some of the New Holland whites at 12-14 pounds, a popular size as well. (Until around the year 1900, most turkeys were only about eight pounds.)

Heritage turkeys are closer to wild than that Butterball. The breast is smaller and the dark meat, because of more oxygen due to more exercise, has a stronger flavor. Although they were once very popular in this country, they faded away as consumers clamored for big juicy white-meat breasts. More recently, advocates of sustainably and naturally raised meats have worked to bring the classic version back, and people are going for it.

Although whether to brine or not to brine is still a subject of heated debate, alternative cooking methods include wrapping the heritage breast with paper, cheesecloth, caul fat or bacon to keep it from drying out, borrowing from game recipes to enhance the stronger flavor, and cooking the bird for a shorter time frame to avoid overcooking it.

So it’s up to you to decide on a commercial bird or a local one, something free-range, organic, fresh or frozen. I don’t know which category the turkeys from my sister’s sister-in-law fall into, but that manner of turkey, raised simply and in a healthy way, is well worth seeking out.

Northwind will have Thanksgiving turkeys available until they run out. A $25 deposit is required with orders, which can be mailed to the farm or dropped off. For more information write northwindfarms@citlink.net or call (845) 757-5591 or the cell number (845) 399-2306.

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