JP’s Food Adventures: Talking Turkey

Heritage breed turkeys include the Bourbon Red. Photo courtesy of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the November issue of our print magazine.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely Anglo-American holiday. We celebrate the early English colonists’ accumulation of enough food to make it through a Yankee winter by gathering the family and overeating, often while watching our homespun bastardization of rugby on television. Mythology surrounding the day even suggests a chummy relationship between the heathen savages and the witch-burning fundamentalists bringing civilization to them. Rule, Britannia!

Of course the specifics of what we’re eating while counting our blessings are pure New World: cranberries, yams, winter squash and of course, turkey – the bird Ben Franklin unsuccessfully proposed for our national symbol. Franklin would hardly recognize the birds that end up on our Thanksgiving tables. They bear little resemblance to their gunmetal-blue cousins running around our Northeast woods.

Nearly all the turkeys in the supermarket are one breed: the Broad Breasted White. This creation of modern science cannot even mate on its own; farmers reproduce them via artificial insemination. Their accelerated life cycle makes them perfect for fully automated, high-density indoor farming. They can cheaply feed a group, and still leave leftovers. They can be bland, though. Cooks in the know employ all manner of tricks to improve them: brining, deep frying, butter under the skin, marinades.

As New Yorkers we have options beyond the supermarket — though each step away from modern industrial farming carries a substantial increase in price.

Probably the Cadillac of turkeydom can be found at Heritage Meats in the Essex Street Market. There I met Emilie Frohlich, a former turkey farmer who explained these turkeys to me. Heritage breeds such as Narragansett, Spanish Black and Bourbon Red were bred for taste, and must be raised the old-fashioned way, outdoors in flocks, where they take twice as long to mature as supermarket birds. Frohlich said there was “no comparison” between the flavor of these birds and those found at the supermarket, because they’re “entirely different animals.” Heritage is taking turkey orders now.

If you’re looking to avoid factory-farmed turkeys but Heritage is out of your price range, take a short field trip to the greenmarkets in Union Square or Tompkins Square Park, which offer access to a variety of turkeys raised locally in upstate New York, including both Broad Breasted Whites and several heritage breeds. Farms such as Quattro’s Game Farm and Norwich Meadows Farm take orders either online or at the markets, and will bring your bird to the city the week before the holiday. Take note: place your order soon.

As a final option, while I don’t find labels like “organic,” “free range” or “humanely raised” terribly meaningful when applied on a corporate scale, those who do can find plenty of choices at Whole Foods. Of course the more labels your bird displays, the more expensive it’s likely to be. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be at my parents’, eating a formerly frozen supermarket turkey – likely a bird from last year that didn’t sell. But it’ll easily feed 15. And we’ll be thankful for it.

J.P. Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is also a wine consultant and a serious home cook who scours the Lower East Side for frugal food finds in his free time.

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