Every year, the Thanksgiving Day table is set hours ahead, bowls and platters at the ready, marked with notes so nothing is forgotten. Scraps of papers bearing lists, recipes, ingredients, timelines, flutter around the kitchen like so many fall leaves. It's the feast of the year and in most homes a dozen or more dishes are served. But in the mad dash to cook an unforgettable holiday meal, the star of the meal, the turkey, is often an afterthought. Sometimes it's even a freebie. Many grocery chains give away turkeys to customers who have accrued sufficient points by shopping there all year. One nibble of these birds make it clear why it's so easy for the stuffing, dressing, roasted vegetables, cheese plate, canapés, spinach dip, mashed potatoes, marshmallowed yams, and pumpkin pie to steal the show. These birds taste like nothing. They have had the flavor bred out of them.
But the dry-and-flavorless reputation turkey has is the least of its problems. Mass market birds are all one variety: the broad breasted white. A Frankenstein of a turkey bred over generations for grotesquely large breasts. These factory-raised specimens are not even able to breed naturally; roaming the land, pecking at bugs, and enjoying any quality of life is out of the question for them. Like all factory farmed animals, they are gorged on commodity corn so they reach slaughter weight fast. They present the familiar set of environmental health concerns of all factory farmed animals, and they taste bad to boot.
Before the broad breasted white was coaxed into existence, there were other breeds of turkey, such as the magnificent Bourbon Red, that tasted better and functioned as a natural part of the farm ecosystem. These birds, known as heritage breeds, were driven near extinction in recent years, but now food enthusiasts have renewed the demand for their robust flavors. They don't require brining or a coating of bacon to make them appetizing. Finding one takes a few minutes of research and, naturally, heritage breeds costs significantly more, but if you take the time to find and cook one this year, you'll be rewarded with a main dish that finally puts those roasted Brussels sprouts in their place. LocalHarvest.org is a good place to start looking for a heritage turkey source near you. Don't forget to make a batch of turkey stock the next day to maximize your investment; the roasted bones of a heritage turkey make for delicious soups, stews, and sauces all through the holiday season.
About Joy Manning
Joy Manning is the coauthor of Almost Meatless (10 Speed Press, 2009). She is also the restaurant critic for Philadelphia Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Cooking Light, Relish, and Inked magazines. She blogs at OysterEvangelist.com.
Disclosure: Samples of products discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or manufacturers.