Even though many people will tell you that their favorite Thanksgiving dish is the stuffing or the potatoes, they will likely concede that the turkey is the star around which all the other temptations orbit. For the last few years I have made it the real star for my family by roasting an heirloom turkey. It’s a tradition inspired by my 9-plus years as photo editor at Bon Appétit magazine, where I produced photography for dozens of Thanksgiving menus and we regarded the holiday as the holy grail for our readers. Now, as photo director at LPK, I’m often called upon to serve as the head of the table and provide the photo vision for a number of our food and beverage clients.
Since the 1960s, the bird that most of us have experienced for Thanksgiving is a Broad Breasted White, selectively bred by USDA scientists to put on maximum breast meat in minimum growing time. The resulting birds, which are the ones we find in the grocery store freezer cases with brand-name labels, are so top heavy they can’t fly or reproduce. But, with the local food movement raising awareness around the benefits of biodiversity, there is a fresh demand for heritage birds and a variety of heirloom breeds to choose from, such as Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Slate, Black Spanish and White Holland. They are beautiful birds, resembling wild turkeys, with classic looks and the quintessential silhouette. There is a little less breast meat, and while some of the breeds do taste a little gamier, they roast evenly and are juicy and delicious.
Heritage turkeys definitely cost more, but there are some compelling reasons to spend a little extra.
Generally, heritage birds are grown humanely on smaller farms with fewer birds, no crowding, no hormones and no confinement to small spaces. They contain no additives, whereas conventional birds are often injected with water, salt, preservatives and flavorings and given antibiotics throughout their lives. Free-range birds receive feed similar to conventional ones, but any free-range poultry also has access to what they can find in the wild, and bugs are a great source of nutrition. Since many of the heritage breeds are endangered (a mere 25,000 heritage turkeys are being raised annually—compared to the estimated 200,000,000 raised by industrial farms), demand for them will help to keep the species diverse, and the environment less disturbed.
Not too long ago Bon Appétit published a piece by Alton Brown in which he recommended buying a conventional bird frozen hard as a bowling ball, brining it in a cooler in the bathtub, stuffing it with nothing more than fresh carrots and herbs and roasting it till it’s done without ever opening the oven door, his theory being that it’s the herbs and the brining that give it all the flavor, and it doesn’t matter what kind of turkey it is or how much you baste it. That’s one theory.
My theory is, as long as you’re going to go to all that trouble, why not begin with something a little more special? I’m ordering my turkey from Greenacres Farm in Indian Hill, just outside of Cincinnati. They grow their own pasture-raised birds without hormones or antibiotics—a hybrid of a conventional turkey and an heirloom breed called Broad Breasted Bronze. Once I get it home, I’ll prepare it with a dry-brine method, using a clay salt that pulls the juices to the surface. My plan is to roast a turkey so delectable that my family keeps the stuffing and potatoes where they belong: on the side.
WHERE TO FIND A HERITAGE TURKEY
Greenacres Farm in Indian Hill, just outside of Cincinnati, is taking orders for fresh turkeys grown on their farm. Turkeys will be available beginning November 21 (8255 Spooky Hollow Road, Cincinnati, Ohio; 513-891-4227).
You can purchase the “Amish Heritage” breed advertised by Carl’s Deli (2836 Observatory Avenue in Hyde Park; 513-871-2275) and Avril Bleh & Sons (33 East Court Street Downtown; 513-241-2333). This is actually the conventional Broad Breasted White, grown without antibiotics and allowed to roam free range.