Know the facts about where our Thanksgiving turkeys come from and the best varieties to buy.

The turkeys our forefathers enjoyed at early Thanksgivings bear little resemblance to today’s birds. Turkeys of yesteryear could fly and mated naturally.


However, decades of increasingly mechanized and standardized agricultural procedures have shrunk the number of breeds in the U.S. Much like tomatoes, potatoes, chickens and other grocery store staples, the standard American turkey is now a single breed that has been engineered throughout the years to grow bigger and grow faster.


As Americans become more concerned about the source of their food, local farms are working to preserve regional breeds of livestock as well as heirloom vegetables and fruits.


Traditional breeds of livestock are called heritage, rather than heirloom. You might see heritage poultry or pork at your local meat market, but the Holy Grail this time of year for the local-minded consumer is the heritage turkey.


The original turkey


The heritage turkey is to Thanksgiving as heirloom tomatoes are to August. Both are a seasonal delicacy, raised or grown naturally with a higher price tag and much richer flavor than the generic versions. The heritage turkey, however, remains exceptionally rare. According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, only about 20,000 heritage turkeys will be available for Thanksgiving 2010, compared with more than 230 million “laboratory turkeys.”


Heritage birds are the ancestors of the common grocery store turkey, known as broad breasted whites. These turkeys are engineered to fatten up quickly, especially in the breast. The Heritage Turkey Foundation says that 99.9 percent of turkeys on the market are broad breasted whites.


Heritage birds grow at a slower pace and cost more, usually about $7 per pound. However, the meat is richer, moister and packs more flavor than your average tom. The breeds date back to America’s early years with names like Bourbon red and Narragansett.


The demand for heritage turkeys means you’re probably out of luck if you didn’t order months in advance. But you may still be able order one in time for Christmas and the Heritage Turkey Foundation website has a list of companies that ship heritage turkeys. If you prefer to get one from a local meat shop, you’ll want to order your bird at least six months in advance.


Other edible heirlooms


Missed out on a heritage turkey this year? Add some history and sustainability to your Thanksgiving table with heirloom vegetable dishes.


Potatoes: With vivid hues like red and purple, these century-old tuber varieties pack more flavor than familiar versions and make for a memorable Thanksgiving side dish.


Squash: Knobby, knotty, curvy and colorful, heirloom squash varieties make easy table decorations. Or consider swapping out the common butternut or acorn squash in recipes with a table queen, kabocha or buttercup variety.


Did you know?




Two basic traits define an heirloom vegetable or fruit: The variety must date back to the early 20th century and it must be open-pollinated, which means pollinated by wind or insects.

Organic or free-range turkeys are more widely available and also reflect eco-friendly farming practices.