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Ariticle from The Mercury News Newspaper

Old-style turkeys are back in style

Posted on Wed, Oct. 20, 2004
Mercury News

Richly flavored, free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free and with a majestic lineage to boot.

No wonder Northern Californians fell hard for heritage turkeys last Thanksgiving and are clamoring for more for the upcoming holiday. Some farmers and grocery stores already were fielding calls over the summer from anxious consumers wanting to know how they could get their hands on these specialty turkeys. These birds are vanishing breeds, descendants of the original ones raised in this country by family farmers before industrialization took hold.

The good news is that getting one this year should be easier. In California alone, 6,000 heritage turkeys are being raised now, more than four times as many as last year. And unlike last year, when folks had to reserve their turkeys two months ahead of time and then pick them up at designated drop-off sites, this year consumers can buy them at select groceries as long as supplies last or get them shipped directly from an area farm. Andronico's, Mollie Stone's and Draeger's stores in the Bay Area already have agreed to carry them, as has Shopper's Corner in Santa Cruz and Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley.

Expect to pay a pretty penny. Heritage turkeys are likely to sell for about $4 a pound, several times the price of most turkeys. The higher price tag reflects how different they are from the average, mass-produced turkey.

People in this country consume 400 million turkeys a year, and almost all of them are Broad Breasted Whites, a breed with short legs and a huge breast, bred to meet Americans' overwhelming taste for white meat. They are usually confined indoors and are often given antibiotics to keep bacteria in check. They are artificially inseminated because their buxomness and short stature leave them unable to copulate naturally. And they can't fly, unlike heritage turkeys, which like to roost in trees.

Heritage turkeys are about 6 months old when brought to market, compared with 3 or 4 months old for a mass-market turkey. They have longer legs, less white meat and look much more aerodynamic in shape. They are sold fresh, not frozen. And because the birds are leaner, most cooks like to brine them at least a day before roasting to heighten their juiciness.

Three years ago, Slow Food, a global organization dedicated to preserving artisanal products, joined with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to protecting breeds of farm animals from extinction, to work with farmers to try to save four of the best-known old breeds of turkey before they vanished. They are: the Bourbon Red from Bourbon County, Ky.; the Narragansett from Rhode Island, which was the first American turkey breed to be developed from ones brought from England; the Jersey Buff from New Jersey; and the Standard Bronze, the breed depicted in the classic Norman Rockwell painting ``Freedom From Want'' and the one Benjamin Franklin proposed as a national symbol.

In the program's first year in 2002, about 5,000 heritage turkeys were raised by farmers in Oklahoma and Kansas. Last year was the first year that California farmers began raising them.

The exact breed of the heritage bird you buy at the market won't be specified, but it's a good bet it will be a Narragansett. That's because farmer Rick Pitman of Mary's Turkeys in Madera is raising the majority of the heritage turkeys available in California, and most of his birds are Narragansetts.

``The response last year was excellent,'' Pitman says. ``I'm very gratified that grocery stores are interested this year, because that's where people really want to pick them up.''

And markets seem happy to take a chance on the product.

``I'm sure the heritage will do well,'' says Marc Kane, vice president of meat and seafood at Andronico's. ``It's a specialty item, but it's not a novelty or a fad. We're already getting calls from people who are interested.''