Let’s Talk Turkey

by Gretchen Morfogen

This month there is little else on the minds palate than the ubiquitous bird. There are two kinds of turkey people. Those who want the same traditional bird year after year because – well- it’s tradition. And the other adventurous cook who wants something different because it is after all- turkey and there are as many variations that can be conquered as there are days in the year and more! Saving a preparation for such a memorable meal is what this month is all about.

The gargantuan toil of the world can come to a halt when the table is set, the family has gathered and the kitchen smells of a collaboration of deliciousness. Even a table for one can be a pleasant place of calm comfortable culinary respite with a preparation of roast turkey and the fixin’s.

So lets talk about the bird. There are several varieties of turkeys that are native to North America. Heritage breed turkeys retain all of the characteristics that made them able to thrive in a variety of different climates and under many different living conditions.

Conventional, factory farm raised turkeys, the kind most of us have on our Thanksgiving table every year, have been bred to be nothing more than meat. Most of the birds have no natural abilities to breed or lay eggs. They’re virtually been stripped of their inherent capabilities through over breeding.

Ben Franklin was not off base in considering them to be the national bird. There are at least 13 varieties of heritage breed turkeys on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list there are only seven on the critical and threatened lists. They are a noble bird in my book but perhaps the thought of consuming the National bird year after year would not have been such a good idea. Besides, had their fate been determined back then to be bred into a commercial “Meatrix”* commodity it would have been shameful to portray our national bird so horrifically. It is, regardless. The reintroduction of the heritage breeds continue to make a comeback as homesteaders, breeders and farmers all over America are doing what they can to bring these birds back from endangerment or worse, extinction.

The seven breeds that are on the ALBC watch list are:

Beltsville Small White

The Beltsville Small White turkey was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture in the 1930s to fill the need for a small, white feathered turkey for family use. White feathers leave no dark spots in the turkey skin when it is plucked and it looks cleaner. This breed is difficult to obtain and is listed on the critical list.


Chocolate Turkey

The Chocolate is a very rare breed, named for the color of its feathers. It was popular prior to the Civil War in much of the South and is therefore still a great choice for the southern homestead.

This heritage breed turkey is hard to find. You must beware buying dark colored turkeys that are not the true Chocolate.

Jersey Buff

The Buff is from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. In the 1940s the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station became interested in developing a buff colored bird in a medium size. They used the Bourbon Red to develop the Jersey Buff.


The Lilac or Lavender is an old breed that shows silvery blue colored feathers. It does not always breed true and you can get buff to red tones as well.

Midget White

The Midget White was developed in the 1960s out of a need to create a smaller broad breasted bird. It has good fertility and brood qualities and is very healthy. The meat is more the flavor of the conventional broad breasted turkey than some of the other heritage varieties.


The Narragansett is named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. This old breed is a cross between the turkeys that were native to the North East and the European turkeys that the colonial settlers brought with them. This breed has been around since the 1600s and was officially recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1874.

Bourbon Red

The Bourbon Red turkey was developed in the 1800s in Kentucky. It has a richly flavored meat and a broad breast that is prized for table use.

You will pay more for the heritage breed turkeys and typically they are sold out long before you might be thinking about your Thanksgiving bird, but check at your local farmers markets and at www.comharvest.org for a farmer in your community that may offer Heritage birds for sale.

In my experience a fresh natural turkey can never compare with a factory bred bird. The flavor profile, texture and flesh tone is superior. May your table be blessed this holiday!

*Meatrix is a film portraying the realities of our commercial meat supplies and the lies we tell ourselves to deny the horrors.

Gretchen Morfogen is a regular culinary writer for The Healthy Planet magazine.