Heritage for $10 a pound
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:30 PM
Recently I caught a snatch of a radio program explaining some people are paying $10 a pound for “heritage” turkeys this holiday season. According to the program, these turkeys are comparable to heirloom tomatoes; sturdier, able to survive outdoors and closer to their original heritage. The commentator claimed that farmers growing heritage turkeys could trace the bloodlines back to the birds consumed by the Pilgrims.
I couldn’t image paying $150 for a holiday turkey, so I did some research.
Anyone who has seen a Wild Turkey (or has examined the label of a certain famous bourbon) will visualize a sleek, long-necked bird with iridescent dark green and rusty feathers. Wild Turkeys are very different from the plump domestic barnyard variety and extremely different from the cage-raised butterball that arrives golden brown on your dining room table.
Originally all turkeys came from one of two North American turkey species. The first, the Wild Turkey, is a common game bird found throughout the continent. Once freely hunted, then regulated, the bird, which reproduces reliably and plentifully, is now increasing in numbers and returning to much of its former range. The second species, the Ocellated Turkey, endemic to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, has not benefited from protection and is quite rare. As the name implies, this species has eye-like spots on its feathers, similar to a peacock.
If you believe the story that the Pilgrims actually ate turkey, and I prefer to do so even though there is no reliable historic record to that effect, it was of the Wild Turkey species. But the tom or hen that fills us during the holidays could as easily have come from the Ocellated Turkey species. Here’s why.
Long before Columbus, Cortez or the Pilgrims arrived, the Aztecs had domesticated one or both of these species. Cortez is often credited with sending live Aztec-domesticated turkeys back to Europe, sometime before 1521. Breeders there knew exactly how to pick out the characteristics they liked and through "unnatural selection," over many turkey generations, turned the Aztec turkeys into a tasty dinner treat.
The difficult question facing these European breeders was what to call this North American bird. In the early 1600s, American food was not popular in Europe—Europeans, for example, were convinced another American food, the tomato, was poisonous. At that time, food from Eastern Europe was all the rage, considered exotic. To overcome this bias, a bright marketer changed the New World term pavo to turkey, borrowing the name from the eastern European country. (At about the same time, the Italians began calling corn, another North American import, granturco, meaning Turkish grain.)
By the mid-1600s turkeys were widely bred and consumed in England. Shakespeare’s plays reflect this popularity by including references to turkeys, often in the form of jokes.
Within a century or two, these domesticated turkeys were sent back to United States farmers and breeders. With all this breeding to favor juicy flesh—both in Europe and here in the United States—the helpless critters could no longer survive outdoors, not even in a barnyard.
So back to the question of the $150 heritage turkeys. Again the breeders did their magic, mixing back in the wild turkey traits so the birds could survive pecking around for seeds, yet maintaining meat tender enough for us to enjoy.
I guess, given that lengthy, time-consuming trip from Mexico to Europe and back to the United States—and then being sent back out to forage—spending $150 for a heritage turkey might be a good deal after all. If you happen to cook one during this feasting season, do let me know how it tastes.
Frances Wood’s book: “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West” is available at local bookstores. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.