Everyone in America eats the exact same turkey.
Of the 242 million turkeys raised this year, maybe 30,000 of them are not broad-breasted whites.
Virtually every turkey bred 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. It was bred to be ‘broad-breasted’ because breast meat sells, and ‘white’ because that way the little feathers missed in plucking won’t show, cutting down on processing costs.
The broad-breasted white is a triumph of efficiency in factory farming.
It was engineered to convert the minimum amount of feed into the maximum amount of white breast meat in the shortest possible amount of time. The turkeys are ready for market in as little as 12 weeks and 70% of the weight is breast. The over-sized breasts make it impossible for appropriate body parts to meet, so 100% of factory-farmed turkeys are the result of artificial insemination. By contrast, heritage breeds take seven months to reach market and are about 50% dark meat. The heritage designation demands that they mate naturally with no human intervention.
A lot of turkey parts have to fall by the wayside to get that much breast meat on a broad-breasted white.
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’re too frail and top-heavy to walk, roost, or fly, often painfully crippled by the stress of all that breast weight perched on under-sized frames. Industrial producers actually prefer immobilized turkeys because there’s no chance of movement that could lead to muscle development. They want to see all of the growth aimed toward 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 other 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.
Breed makes a huge difference to the taste of chickens too. Read about heritage chicken varieties in Chicken. Just Chicken.