Heirloom Turkeys a Link to Earliest Thanksgivings

Traditional Thanksgiving dinner. (circlePS, Getty Images)
Growing interest in locally grown food, plus the idea of eating a bird more like what the Pilgrims may have eaten, drive heirloom turkey sales around Thanksgiving, says UConn professor. (circlePS, Getty Images)

Buying a turkey is more than likely already checked off your “to-do” list. If not, better hurry. But if your heart is set on serving one of the heritage or heirloom varieties, you may be out of luck.

Farms selling these breeds – descendants of the birds the early settlers enjoyed – typically sell out weeks before Thanksgiving Day. Specialty and natural food markets may also offer them, but they usually need to be ordered ahead.

So what is it about these slower growing, gamier-tasting turkeys that has people signing up to get one a year in advance and paying as much as double or more per pound?

A number of factors may explain this, says Michael Darre, an extension poultry specialist and animal science professor in the College of Agriculture Health and Natural Resources. The biggest driver is the growing interest in locally grown food, he says, while some people just like the wilder taste or the idea of eating a bird more like the kind the Pilgrims might have eaten.

“It’s a growing market, but all in all it’s about individual taste,” Darre says.

Heritage breeds have colorful names that play off the color of their feathers and region of origin. Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, Slate, and Jersey Buff are among the better-known  varieties. Unlike the broad-breasted white turkey raised commercially, heirloom turkeys flap more and fly, Darre says. As a result, the meat tends to be leaner, darker, and more flavorful. The foraged nuts in their diet give the meat a gamey, nutty taste.

Heritage turkeys represent a fraction of the 46 million turkeys expected to be consumed this Thanksgiving. Of the 3,500 turkeys raised at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, for example, only 60 to 70 are heirloom breeds, says Katherine Hermonot ’14 (CAHNR).

Hermonot  is part of a farming family that also includes her dad, Rick Hermonot ’81 (CAHNR), mom Elena, sister Ashley ’07 (CAHNR), and brothers Jonathan ’04 (CAHNR), and Christopher. They get $9.99 a pound for their heritage turkeys, compared to the $4.79 for conventional white birds. The higher price reflects the higher cost of raising them, Katherine says. Heirloom babies, or poults, run about three times what conventional turkey poults do. They also grow more slowly – about five to six weeks longer than the 16 to 20 weeks it takes to grow commercial white turkeys; and are typically smaller – about 6 to 14 pounds instead of 25 to 30 pounds – when fully grown.

Because heirlooms can grow differently from year to year, taste can vary along with available sizes. Customers don’t seem to mind that, says Hermonot. The same ones come back year after year, and others put their names on a waiting list. The growth of the market is rewarding, she says, because it allows farmers to preserve heirloom breeds.

When it comes to cooking heirloom varieties, the same rules apply as for cooking conventional turkeys, Darre says. Follow cooking instructions that come with the turkey to avoid overcooking, which dries out the meat, he says. Be sure the temperature of the cooked bird reaches 170 degrees, and cook the dressing in a dish outside the turkey, instead of in the cavity, to avoid salmonella contamination.

Asked which kind of turkey he prefers, Darre couldn’t say if one kind is better than the other.

“I’m not a gourmet person,” he says. “I eat to live, not live to eat.”