I don’t need to tell you.
By now, we’re all pretty well acquainted with the miserable conditions and often inhumane treatment that produce the bulked-up shrink-wrapped birds found in supermarket cases. But did you know that they’re basically all the same turkey?
A year’s production: 275,000,000 broad-breasted whites and only 30,000 heritage birds.
Virtually every turkey raised in the U.S. comes from a single genetic line. Even most free-range farmed turkeys have been raised from poults purchased from large-scale breeders working from that line. The broad-breasted white is a genetically-engineered hybrid developed in the 1970’s; ‘broad-breasted’ because breast meat sells; ‘white’ because the little feathers missed in plucking won’t show.
The broad-breasted white was engineered to convert the minimum amount of feed into the maximum amount of white breast meat in the shortest possible amount of time. And what a triumph it is! A factory-farmed turkey is ready for market in as little as twelve weeks (versus around 30 weeks for heritage breeds) and about 70% of its weight is breast.
A lot of turkey parts have to fall by the wayside to get that much breast meat.
Mass market turkeys have scrawny legs and tiny little skeletons. Their body cavities are so small that their organs are too crowded to reach full functionality. They are too frail and front-heavy to walk, roost, fly, or mate. There’s little chance of any muscle development, which is all the better to support the singular goal of breast production.
The broad-breasted white turkey is not a robust bird.
Their oversized breasts constrict their lungs so that they are constantly starved for oxygen. They develop the cardiovascular diseases that seem to find the overweight and sedentary members of every species. Even if they’re not headed to slaughter, the ‘natural’ life-span of these turkeys is only a year or two, versus the eight to twelve year life expectancy of heritage breeds.
There’s nothing robust about their flavor either. All that white meat is flabby; the protein level is low, the taste is mild, and the texture is soft. Gaminess and chew have been bred out, and while broad-breasted whites are higher in fat than other breeds, there’s none of the richness.
A naturally raised, free range broad-breasted white turkey can be a vast improvement over a factory farmed specimen. It has a foraged diet and develops muscle mass that contribute to superior flavor. But for a turkey that tastes like a turkey should taste, you’ll have to seek out a heritage breed. ‘Heritage’ is not a federally-regulated term, and it’s an over-used marketing buzzword, but a true heritage turkey is one of the ten specific breeds that were raised in the U.S. prior to the 1950’s when the poultry industry began to genetically engineer turkeys on the way to developing the broad-breasted white.
Don’t eat a Thanksgiving turkey that tastes like every turkey in America.
You can order a heritage breed turkey online at Heritage Foods USA and D’Artagnan. On the east coast, Mary’s Turkeys can direct you to local markets that carry their birds. Local Harvest and the The US Ark of Taste at Slow Food USA both maintain national directories of heritage turkey farms, markets, and breeders.