The past couple of years heritage turkeys have grabbed some well-deserved spotlight time. A search of the Internet shortly before last Thanksgiving revealed an impressive number of growers offering these turkeys for sale. If you were one of the many who have shelled out a few extra bucks for one of these popular birds, what made you choose a heritage breed? Novelty? The trendiness of it all? Before you prepared and ate it, did you really know what makes a heritage breed different or better than the normal frozen supermarket variety?
As noted in a previous post, a "heritage" breed is a purebred, or standard, bird, while the usual commercial turkey is a faster-growing hybrid. Heritage breeds are also defined as breeds that are "naturally mating" types. Yes, you heard right: Heritage breeds mate naturally; hybrids, mostly owing to their unnaturally large breasts, cannot mate. They must be artificially inseminated.
Apparently this minor inconvenience is offset by the faster growth that brings them to your grocer's freezer 2-3 months faster than the purebreds.
If you are serious about learning more about where your food comes from, start to think beyond the garden or greenhouse. See if you can find someone who raises poultry, and start asking questions. If you live in a big city, ask at your local grocery or co-op. If your store doesn't offer heritage breed turkeys, check localharvest.org for a source close to you.
By the way, "heritage" applies just as much to chickens as to turkeys (as well as other types of livestock). Many of these historically important breeds are now endangered. Chickens in particular have had a tough time since the ridiculously fast-growing Cornish-Plymouth Rock hybrid was developed in the 1950s. If you're like most people, you eat chicken more frequently than turkey. There are just as many good reasons to buy and enjoy heritage chicken....if you can find it.
More about heritage chickens in an upcoming post.