Some Turkey History We may have been eating them for hundreds of years, but we just don't know turkeys. Called huexolotl by the Aztecs who domesticated it, the name given to the turkey by European explorers does actually refer to Turkey, the country.
The Europeans incorrectly identified the large birds as guineafowl, which were known at the time as "turkey hens" and "turkey cocks." According to the Webster's New World Dictionary "The name turkey or turkey cock was originally applied to an African bird now known as the guineafowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guineafowl, and so gave it the name turkey, although the two species are quite distinct."
Among the largest of the birds native to the forests of North America, Ben Franklin wrote to his daughter that the turkey was a better symbol of the revolutionaries than the bald eagle because it was "a Bird of Courage, (that) would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on." Though he also noted, turkeys tend to be "a little vain and silly."
Like the passenger pigeon, wild turkeys were nearly extinguished in the 1800s when a single hunter easily brought in as many as 100 per day. With only 30,000 of the wild turkeys remaining as of a 1930 census, conservation efforts have increased the wild population to about five million now roaming the woods. But commercially available turkeys have changed a lot since the game birds of Ben Franklin's day.
For a while, domestication and breeding led to a proliferation of types of turkey, many splendidly adorned, like the Spanish Black, Narragansett and Bourbon Red. These (often regional) turkey breeds were prized for qualities such as: taste, ability to forage with little extra feed, gentle behavior and good maternal instincts.
But now there is only one, of which we consume nearly 300 million per year. According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, "the common Broad-breasted White industrial breed of turkey comprises 99.99% of the supermarket turkeys sold today…because of high breast meat production in a short period." And although they grow quickly, it is that large breast that prevents the 99% from mating and re-producing in the time-honored fashion. They are essentially sterile without human intervention.
Heritage Turkeys The Heritage Turkey Foundation says "Raising Heritage Breeds is more costly and time consuming than raising White Breasted Toms. While supermarket turkeys grow to an average of 32 pounds over 18 weeks, Heritage birds take anywhere from 24-30 (weeks) to reach their market weight."
That extended timeframe, and the fact that turkey predators are legion (hey, turkeys are tasty!), explains why heritage birds can cost up to ten dollars (or more) per pound. It's just more expensive (and more hassle) to raise them.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists heritage turkeys that are under "critical, threatened, and watch" status. "Critical" denotes fewer than 500 breeding birds registered in the U.S. The critically listed Beltsville Small White was once a food of the Great Lakes region, according to Slow Food USA, and it is the heritage bird which the Broad-breasted White was quickly developed in the 1940s.
Although I don't know of any farmers growing the Beltsville Small White, for the past few years we have gotten a turkey from one of the several farms nearby with pastured and heritage breed turkeys.
I have found a deeper connection to the gratitude we celebrate at Thanksgivingwhen I know the farmer who raised my turkey in a manner that the pilgrims would still recognize, on a nearby farm that I can visit. Dang, if it doesn't taste better too.
Where to Get Your Fresh Local Turkey (Heritage or not)
Dawn Farm Type of turkey: Broad-breasted White Size: 15-35 pounds, most 20-25 pounds Price per pound: $2.25 Pastured? Cage free, have a coop where they are together with fenced yard area to roam. Pickup: Tuesday, Nov. 22, after 10 a.m. Pay at pickup. Phone: 734-485-8725 Email: N/A Location: 6633 Stony Creek Road, Ypsilanti
Ernst Farm (may have turkeys, but I haven't been able to reach them by phone).
Fletcher Farm Type of turkey: Broad-breasted White Size: 20 pounds and up, some 17 or 18 pounds. Robert Fletcher says "For fresh turkeys it's hard to get a small turkey. Mine are sold fresh, not frozen. No pesticides or growth hormones. Organically fed. Free range. Price per pound: $3.50 Pastured? Organically fed, free range, no hormones Pickup: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before Thanksgiving, from 9-11 a.m. until they're gone. Call before coming out. Phone: 734-663-8649 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Location: 1331 S. Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor
Fletcher Farm also has ducks and geese but would like people to call for these two weeks in advance to have time to process them. Will have them for Christmas too. Have year round — just need advance notice.
Ducks (Muscovy) - $4.99/pound Geese (African, and another type) - $5.99/pound
Firesign Farm Owner Ruth Ehman raises turkeys ordered in the spring.
John Harnois Type of turkey: Narragansett, Bourbon Red, and Spanish Black (Broad-breasted Whites already sold out) Size: 6-16 pounds Price per pound: $10 Pastured? Free range, local feed (Adrian) Pickup: Friday before Thanksgiving Phone: 734-645-0300 Or, sign up at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market Location: 9260 Scully Road, Whitmore Lake
Rockin' H Farm (may have turkeys, but I haven't been able to reach them by phone or email).
And, if you'd rather have someone else make your Thanksgiving dinner, here are some tasty options: