In the spring of 2002, eleven-year-old poultry enthusiast Zachary Thode decided to raise Bourbon Red turkeys at his family home in Sebastapol. The twelve birds were not intended for Thode’s holiday dinners, but they weren’t pets; Thode was raising them for neighbors who had paid in advance. He bought the turkeys as day-old poults from a hatchery and raised them under a heat lamp until feathers replaced down and the birds could go outside.
A week before Thanksgiving, disaster struck in the form of a four-footed feline: a bobcat killed seven of the birds, and Thode faced a $350 loss. It was not an auspicious beginning, but Thode, a member of Sonoma County’s 4-H, soldiered on.
The following year, he increased his poult order, raised his turkeys, and found a processor—someone who would slaughter and dress the turkeys for the table. Days before Thanksgiving, the processor had a stroke. Scrambling, Thode found someone else who charged twice as much, reducing young Thode’s profit by nearly eight dollars a bird. From that batch, he saved out four breeders, birds that were excellent examples of Bourbon Reds. In January, he brought them to Stockton, to the state’s biggest poultry show, where one was crowned State Champion Turkey. Four days later all four were dead, perhaps killed by the same nefarious bobcat.
It was another devastating blow for a twelve-year-old who loves his turkeys. But the young poultry producer’s fate was about to take a strange twist. That very afternoon he got a call from Slow Food USA’s Randi Sidner, who suggested that Thode and his 4-H friends raise heritage turkeys for the Russian River branch of Slow Foods.
What exactly is a heritage breed? These older breeds grow more slowly than commercialized breeds, which have been bred to make more money for the meat industry by putting on the poundage as quickly as possible. (Commercialized meat chickens grow so fast that some die of heart attacks at five or six weeks old, a month shy of slaughter.) Because profit margins rule the world of meat, heritage breeds have gradually died out, with poultry hobbyists their only champions.
But the hobbyists knew a secret: the slower-growing turkeys and chickens develop more taste over their longer lives. And that is right up the alley of Slow Foods USA, part of a worldwide movement begun in Italy, that advocates for local production of delicious and nutritious food, the sort of meals over which one wants to linger. In the turkeys’ case, growing great dinners is only part of the mandate; Slow Foods has partnered with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to promote breeds in danger of extinction. The breeds considered heritage by the ALBC are Beltsville Small White, Chocolate, Lavendar/Lilac, Jersey Buff, Midget White, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Standard Bronze, and Broad-Breasted Bronze. Of these, only the last is not in danger. Five breeds are considered critical, with only a few breeding flocks in the country, and two, the Narragansett and White Holland, are considered threatened.
Sidner listened to Thode’s sad tale, offered sympathy, and asked him to identify his biggest obstacle. Surprisingly, the bobcat didn’t take top honor—processing did. Thode explained that it cost too much, and the turkeys had to be driven off-site, which upset them and therefore Thode. Sidner said she’d deal with the processing problem if Thode would raise the birds. Thus was born the Slow Foods Heritage Turkey Project.
True to her word, the following year Sidner located a processor who owns a duck farm. He had a mobile trailer outfitted for processing birds, and he was able to come to Thode’s home. Thode, meanwhile, had recruited several others to participate in raising birds, including his younger brother David. That year they raised a hundred turkeys, some auctioned off at a Slow Foods event. Finally Thode made money on his turkey venture, in addition to, he says, garnering “Customers for life.”
Now seventeen, Thode and his 4-H partners raised over 200 turkeys this year, almost double the past output. Some friends, twins whose last name happens to be “Holland,” chose Holland Whites for their project, while Zachary and his brother David got a batch of different breeds from the hatchery. Thode continues to keep a few breeders, and the bobcat lately has not been a bother (knock on wood).
A question remains: if these heritage turkeys are in such danger of extinction, do you really want to eat one? The truth is that unless they have a commercial purpose, such as gracing holiday tables, their gene pool will eventually die out. Increasing their numbers as part of a food project is their best opportunity to continue as viable breeds. And why deny yourself a truly memorable slow dinner? “They taste so much better,” says Thode’s mother, Catherine.
Thode explains that all turkeys developed from the old Bourbon Red variety. The birds now used as commercial turkeys were selected to contain more white meat, around sixty to seventy percent of their total weight. This means they’re considerably drier when cooked. To combat dryness and increase weight, some turkeys are injected with liquid, but a lot of trouble goes on in American kitchens on Thanksgiving morning in an oftentimes-futile attempt to bring juicy meat to the table. Workarounds include brining, basting, and artfully arranged foil tents.
The heritage birds contain more meat per weight, and that meat tends towards a fifty-fifty split of dark and white. Dark meat bastes the white meat, so the heritage birds naturally turn out moist without being watery while tasting more like turkey.
Will heritage birds replace the commercial breeds? Not likely, as the growth difference is substantial. Commercial turkeys are big enough to process at three and a half months, reducing feed and housing costs for the producer, while a heritage bird might take twice as long. “The birds gain flavor over that period,” argues Thode. “Feed has a lot to do with [taste] too.” The Russian River heritage birds are raised outside and fed organic grains. They can eat seeds, scratch for bugs, and nibble leaves and other greens. And they embody the ground zero of sustainability: They can mate naturally. The giant plump white-meat breasts of commercial birds prevent the male from mounting the female; all commercial turkeys are bred by artificial insemination.
Thode’s mother, born and raised in Southern California, says she never thought she’d be raising turkeys—and the experience has had unexpected results. “That first year with Slow Foods, the processor came to us. The next year, we brought them off-site. It didn’t feel good. This time we’ve again found someone who will come to us. The birds are in their own habitat, and I know they’re handled humanely because they’ve never left my sight. I am very aware that commercial birds haven’t been handled like this, so the turkey project has been a metamorphosis for me. Now I find it hard to buy birds at the store.”
To contact the Slow Foods Heritage Turkey Project, visit http://www.slowfoodrr.org