The (not so happy) history of the American Turkey

Tuesday, 17 November, 2015 By Lee Greene
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Heritage turkeys on pasture (copyright Lockhart Family Farm)

Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting, Freedom From Want, is for Americans the quintessential image of Thanksgiving. It appeared in the inside of the popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, that same year, and served as illustration for the World War II Bond Drive during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. In this image, the family sits around a white glowing table excited for the bounty and tradition they are about to partake in. The centerpiece is the large golden turkey that is presented and gazed upon as the symbol of sustenance and familial togetherness.

Rockwell’s image is, of course, an idealized one for our real life dinners come with more complicated food choices than the folks of that time had and more dirty dishes than this painting reveals. If you buy a mass-produced turkey today you will most likely be dining on a Broad Breasted White, a standardized bird that currently accounts for 99% of turkey farming in the U.S. It descended from more diverse and refined stock than it’s present-day industrially-produced characteristics reveal.

Origins and current conditions of the Broad Breasted White

Today’s commercial bird originated from two breeds called the Standard Bronze and Bourbon Reds in the nineteenth century. They were pasture-raised and had origins native to North and South America. In the early twentieth-century farmers started breeding the Standard Bronze to have more significant breasts. They named this variety the Broad Breasted Bronze. However, it grew out of favor as consumers disliked the look of the bird’s dark pinfeathers after being plucked. In addition, their larger size made it difficult to fit them in home refrigerators and consumers requested something more accommodating to their needs. Breeders responded by tinkering again and by the 1960s cross-bred the Broad Breasted Bronze with the White Holland to create the Broad Breasted White.

Our modern desires come with consequences, though. Over 46 million turkeys currently are bred on factory farms, mostly for processed turkey products such as lunch meat and bacon. They are raised to have very large breasts, so much so that they may only reproduce through artificial insemination as their body structure has been altered significantly. In addition, they grow twice as fast and put on much more body fat than their ancestors. As journalist Kristen Wartman details in Civil Eats, only days after hatching the turkeys’ beaks are cut to prevent them from hurting each other in close confinement, limiting their natural ability to forage and making them susceptible to disease. To combat this, they are fed antibiotics in their corn-based feed.

Sustainable, traditional farming creates not only healthy, but more flavorful product

According to Frank Reese, a farmer at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, industrially-produced turkey lacks flavor, complexity, and nutrition. Reese should know. He raises a variety of heritage poultry on his land—or as he prefers to call them “Standard-bred”—such as Narragansett and Bourbon Red turkeys and Jersey Giant chickens, and is widely acknowledged as a pioneer for promoting traditional farming practices and conservation and cultivation of rare breed bird varieties. He comes from a long line of farmers and “can trace his family’s turkeys’ bloodlines back to 1917.”

Whether one refers to these birds as heritage or standard-bred, The Livestock Conservancy defines them by the fact that they mate naturally, without the aid of artificial insemination, have a long productive life outdoors, and are given time to grow, reaching “market age” at around 28 weeks for 18-20 pound Toms. Comparatively, the Broad Breasted White’s quickened lifespan is 16 weeks and they achieve an average weight of 39 pounds at slaughter. Reese is adamant that a farmer who practices sustainable, traditional farming creates healthy, more flavorful product. As he offers in an interview with Feast Magazine: “With an industrial bird, the animal [is] incapable of exercising…The more white meat you have on an animal, the poorer the nutrition. [White meat is] a direct result of the animal’s inability to run, jump and fly – to oxygenate the muscle. The darker the meat, the better the nutrition. Because you have physical activity, you get darker and darker meat…which is so rich and flavorful. When you bite into the meat, it’s a totally different texture…Plus, if you butcher those old toms right before Thanksgiving and you’ve had some cold weather, they put on a huge, beautiful layer of natural fat.”

That does not mean that you have to eat a heritage turkey this Thanksgiving – it’s not quite black and white. There are great local sustainable farms raising turkeys from the lineage of Broad Breasted Whites the right way, letting them roam on pasture etc. Knowing where your turkey comes from is key.

But there are more complex flavors to discover in heritage meat, and reorienting one’s palate towards heritage flavors means also learning new techniques for cooking them which could be a fun project to take on in the kitchen. Not only is the meat ratio of breast to legs inverted to what we know from conventionally farmed turkeys, but being pasture raised the texture of the meat is different, too. Rob Levitt, founder of the Butcher & Larder, talks about this in Lee’s conversation with him where he advises to forgo cooking the bird whole but instead separating it into parts. If you want to cook a whole heritage bird, Josiah Lockhart of Lockhart Family Farm shares his technique to cooking a whole heritage bird on his blog.


Sources: Chefs Collaborative “All About Heritage Turkeys”;   USDA “A Brief History of Turkey Research

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