TOP PHOTO: Broad Breasted White,
America’s supermarket turkey. Photo
courtesy Porter Turkeys. BOTTOM PHOTO:
What the Pilgrims ate: the original wild
turkey, a streamlined physique. Photo by
Larry Price | National Wild Turkey
The turkey is a native American bird. As everyone who went to grade school here knows, it was enjoyed by the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Native American neighbors at a dinner at the Plimouth Plantation, Massachusetts in 1621.
(Plimouth is how the Pilgrims spelled it. In the 17th century, there was no standardization of spelling. The modern town is spellled Plymouth, but the historical site retains its original spelling.)
A celebration of the settlers’ first harvest, this harvest feast was later called “The First Thanksgiving” by 18th-century scholars. The name stuck. Check out more about it below.
Fast forward almost 400 years, and we’re consuming 400 million turkeys a year. Ninety-nine percent of them are Broad Breasted Whites, a breed with short legs and a huge breast, bred to meet Americans’ overwhelming taste for white meat.
As much as we gobble up those big birds, there’s been rumbling that they’re dry, tasteless, and bear no relation whatsoever to that enjoyed by our forefathers (or even our grandparents).
Is that true? We share our notes from a tasting test in the next section. But the choices become confusing, and we’ve addressed them: heirloom versus heritage, wild versus heirloom, and supermarket turkey versus the world.
More than 10 breeds are classified as heritage turkeys: Auburn, Buff, Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze and Midget White. These were bred long ago from the original wild turkey.
Much of the ancient breeding stock survived on family farms, kept as show birds, consumed by the farm families and available in tiny quantities in the locale.
But it’s not all deliciousness in Heritage Turkeyland. According to LivestockConservancy.org, the Jersey Buff and Midget White are on the critical extinction list; the Narragansett is on the Threatened list; and the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Slate and Standard Bronze are on the Watch list. However…
Over the past two decades, as heritage breeds have been “reclaimed” by chefs, expansion of certain heritage breeds has ensured that there’s enough heritage turkey for everyone who wants one.
Does that mean you should reach for the Butterball and forget heritage breeds? Not at all!
TURKEY VARIETIES FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Thanks to Whole Foods for helping to explain these choices. All of Whole Foods Markets’ turkeys come from farms that have been certified by the third-party verified 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System. They are raised with no antibiotics, no added hormones and no animal bi-products in their feed.
Classic Antibiotic-Free Turkeys. These are Broad Breasted Whites (see top photo above) raised with no antibiotics. They are the perennial customer favorite at Whole Foods Markets. “They offer a trifecta of flavor, quality and value,” says Whole Foods.
Organic Turkeys. In addition to being raised without the use of antibiotics, organic turkeys are raised on farms that have been certified organic according to USDA Organic Standards (only certified organic feed, processing and packaging allowed).
Heritage Turkeys. These birds are raised slowly and traditionally. They’re old breeds with a more robust turkey flavor, and are typically a bit smaller (usually up to 14 pounds) than classic antibiotic free birds. One reason for their smaller size is that, unlike the majority of today’s commercial breeds, heritage turkeys are single breasted like their wild ancestor.
WHAT ABOUT THE BUTTERBALL?
Our mother was a Butterball loyalist, and made terrific turkey with moist breast meat, using her various techniques that included brining and covering the breast with foil. If you want an ultra moist turkey, but don’t want to do the brining at home, buy a hand-brined bird that’s ready to roast. (NOTE: Remember not to stuff a brined bird because the stuffing will be too salty.)
A few years ago, we were invited to a tasting of different roast turkeys at a prominent culinary school. Except for the Butterball, which was frozen, the birds were fresh.
We liked Butterball the best! Here are our tasting notes, with the counsel that it isn’t truly scientific since we didn’t repeat the test. And, birds from different farms could easily yield different results.
Organic Turkey. The white meat was pebbly, papery. The dark meat was pink, moist, very tasty.
Butterball Turkey. The meatiest breast and drumsticks. Excellent texture and taste, a very “birdy” flavor (what we have come to recognize as great turkey flavor) and classic white meat. The dark meat is darker in color and a little chewier than the organic turkey, but a lovely, pure, excellent flavor. The interesting thing about this bird is that the white meat and dark meat flavors are not at extremes: White meat lovers should enjoy the dark meat, and dark meat lovers should enjoy the white meat. Note that Butterball is a brand, and not all Broad Breasted White turkeys are branded.
Heritage Bourbon Red Turkey. A smaller, broad breast with lots of breast meat but smaller drumsticks. The meat was chewy all over without a lot of flavor. The dark meat is very dark; moist but just too chewy with no other payoff.
Heritage Standard Bronze Turkey. The meat was chewy, but not as chewy as the Heritage Bourbon Red. The dark meat was moist, the white meat O.K.
Wild Turkey. This scrawny, elongated bird looks like a champion marathon runner (see the photo above). There was almost no meat on the upper breast, but it had big thighs. Surprisingly, both white and dark meat were very tender. I wish it had more “birdy” flavor.
Heirloom Turkey. Dating back to the early 1920s-1930s, heirloom turkeys were bred to strike a balance between the wild, robust flavor of the heritage breeds, and the mild flavor then (and still) preferred by consumers. They were bred to be double breasted, to provide more white meat than heritage turkeys.
Kosher Turkeys. Rabbinical inspectors check each bird to ensure that it is of the highest quality and processed in accordance with the kosher standards of cleanliness, purity and wholesomeness. You can find both conventional and organic kosher birds. TIP: Hold the salt! Kosher turkeys have already been salted. And don’t brine or you’ll have an overly salty bird.
The next two varieties were included in our taste test; but to be fair, they were at the end of the tasting, and we were all turkeyed out. We were stuffed and predisposed not to like anything else.
So what should you do? The decision is yours. You can go with what you enjoyed last year, or try something new.
Tip: If you’re feeding a large group or want white meat leftovers, pick up an extra organic turkey breast to make sure you have plenty of white meat to go around.
THE REAL THANKSGIVING FACTS
It is a little-known fact that the three-day feast celebrated by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag natives, which we purportedly replicate on the fourth Thursday of each November, was never again repeated in Plimouth Plantation; nor was it deemed by the colonists to be a “Thanksgiving feast.”
In fact, days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims were devoted to prayer, not feasting. So we are not replicating the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving Day each year.
That term was bestowed by academics researching the topic in the 18th century.
We know that in 1621, the governor of Plimoth Plantation sent four men fowling, and “they four in one day shot as much fowl.” Perhaps it was turkey, perhaps duck, which was also plentiful in the area. The one written record dies not specify.
We also know that the native Wampanoag guests killed five deer. About ninety of them attended, and the feast lasted for three days.
A Treasure Trove Of Thanksgiving History
There’s much to know about the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag People that we never learned in school. But Scholastic.com has the best site we’ve seen on the history of Thanksgiving. We love it!
If people are waiting around for dinner, send them here.
President Abraham Lincoln declared the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, and created the holiday observed since on the fourth Thursday of November.
Platter garnishing ideas: TOP PHOTO. Add some veggies to the plater. We raw prefer cherry tomatoes and baby pattypan squash, which add color, don’t take away from the cooked fare and can be enjoyed the next day. Photo courtesy iGourmet. BOTTOM PHOTO: Keep it simple with kumquats and whole uncooked cranberries. Photo courtesy National Turkey Federation.