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Article from the Mercury News Newspaper

Bay Area Stores To Carry Rare-Breed Heritage Turkeys

Mercury News
Posted on Wed, Nov. 02, 2005

Discriminating Thanksgiving shoppers who crave a bird that's richly flavored, free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free, and boasting an impressive lineage will be glad to know that heritage turkeys once again will be sold at some Bay Area markets.

Heritage turkeys will sell for about the same price as last November, about $3.99 a pound. Stores will take pre-orders until their supplies run out -- which, unfortunately, may be sooner than usual this year.

Mary's Turkeys in Madera, the largest supplier of heritage turkeys in California, last year raised about 6,000 heritage birds. This year, there are only 4,000.

``The Midwest had a very cold winter last year when the turkeys were supposed to be breeding,'' says Mary Pitman, who owns the farm with her husband. ``So the turkeys didn't breed as much. And we weren't able to get as many as we had hoped to get.''

In contrast, Heritage Foods USA, a seller of artisan foods and rare-breed poultry and meat, has a surplus of heritage turkeys this year after two large purchasers reneged on buying 2,000 birds. The New York- and Michigan-based food company (which was the sales branch of the Slow Food organization until becoming an independent company last year), gets its heritage turkeys from six Kansas farmers and ships them to customers across the nation. But mail-order is more expensive. An 11- to 14-pound turkey from is $139 including shipping.

The nation's appetite for heritage turkeys was primed four years ago when Slow Food, a global organization dedicated to preserving artisanal products, joined with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a non-profit group 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, the first American turkey breed to be developed from ones brought from Europe and crossed with local wild turkeys; 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.

The Pitmans raise Narragansetts, which will be available at these stores: Andronico's, Draeger's, Mollie Stone's, SaveMart, Shopper's Corner in Santa Cruz, Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley and Golden Gate Meat in San Francisco. Call or visit a store to reserve a heritage turkey in advance. For a complete list of stores, go to

Pitman raises the turkeys and brings them to market when they are 6 to 7 months old, compared with 3 to 4 months old for a mass-market turkey. Heritage turkeys have longer legs and 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.

Because heritage turkeys are raised naturally, their sizes are more unpredictable. The Pitmans expect this year's turkeys to be smaller than usual. The ``small'' ones will be seven to 11 pounds; the ``large'' ones will be 12 to 16 pounds.