Next week, as American families carve into an estimated 45 million turkeys, a very, very small fraction with very, very expensive tastes will share a rare and much-praised heritage turkey. Unlike the commercial breed—the Broad Breasted White selectively bred for an extremely ample bosom—heritage birds are smaller, grow slower, and boast more robust flavor. Their lineage traces back to the 1800s, and unlike their industrially farmed cousins, they can (and do) reproduce naturally.
Even as choices in the turkey aisle seem to expand every year, from the lowly Butterball to antibiotic-free, to free-range, to organic—all of which are those ubiquitous Broad Breasted Whites—gourmands are seeking out and spending $10 per pound (or more) for pedigreed turkeys. To justify the hefty expenditures, they cite the better animal welfare enjoyed by breeds not hobbled by giant breasts, the need for biodiversity, and (not least) flavor.
Experts pose a warning: Beware of impostors.
“We’re faced with the issue that we knew was coming—fake heritage turkeys,” said Roger Mastrude, founder of the Heritage Turkey Foundation, in an email. Allegations of fakery range from partially, probably heritage birds that lack proper American Poultry Association (APA) certification to the use of intentionally misleading marketing ploys such as the term “heirloom,” which can fool consumers looking for the real thing.
The APA, the country’s oldest livestock organization, started certifying breeder flocks as “standard bred” in 2015 so long as they met the body’s standards of perfection for any of its eight recognized breeds, including Standard Bronze and Narragansett. Licensed flock inspectors check for physical requirements of the breed, such as weight, and ascertain that no more than 2 percent of the birds have such growth defects as a deformed back or crooked keel bone that would affect market value. To date, only two farmers in the U.S. have passed muster.
“APA is the only organization in America whose endorsement means anything,” says Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA, which sells meats from old breeds of livestock in an effort to conserve them. He buys every bird that Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan., will sell him, which Reese estimates will be about 7,000 this year. (The second APA-certified flock is raised by Michelle Oswald of Old Time Farm, who sold 30 birds this year in Pittsburgh farmers markets.)
“We only buy from Frank because he’s the only one we’re sure has 100 percent heritage genetics,” says Martins. The largest option, 20 to 22 pounds, is currently selling online for $219. Last Thanksgiving, the average turkey cost $1.42 per pound.
Use of the word “heritage,” however, has been popular for more than a decade, and many retailers sell birds under the label. Neither Martins nor the APA assert that only APA-certified birds are heritage, just that it’s the only way to know for sure.
D’Artagnan Inc., a purveyor of high-end and rare meats, for example, sells the Standard Bronze and Bourbon Red breeds, with the larger, 12-pound birds listed at $214.99. Chief Executive Officer Ariane Daguin says her turkeys are not APA-certified but come through “privileged partnerships” with farmers in Lancaster County, Pa. She agrees that the term has been misappropriated at times but doesn’t think APA certification is necessary. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture,” which requires documentation for heritage poultry claims, “has done a pretty good job there—and I don’t say that often,” she says.
Daguin cautions, though, that the word “heritage” has meaning only if it comes right before the word “turkey.”
“There are some people who sell turkeys from ‘heritage farmers,’ and that doesn’t mean anything,” she explains.
Whole Foods sells non-APA certified heritage turkeys, too, bought from two well-known and respected farms, White Oak Pastures and Pitman Family Farms, for around $6 per pound. More controversially, it also sells “heirloom” turkeys ($3 per pound) which are a mix of several breeds from the 1900s, including the non-APA-recognized American Bronze, a predecessor to the commercial Broad Breasted White.
“It’s not as extreme in form as modern Frankenturkeys,” the Heritage Turkey Foundation’s Mastrude says of the American Bronze, “but it was the first move toward them.”
“It’s all marketing techniques,” APA president John Monaco says of the term “heirloom.”
A Bird by Any Other Name
Diestel Farms, a Whole Foods heirloom supplier, says its birds taste better than heritage and are purposely labeled differently.
“If customers want a true heritage turkey, they’ve gotta buy something that says heritage on the label,” says Heidi Diestel, one of the farmers. “But we do think our American Heirloom Collection birds are really unique and delicious.”
Theo Weening, global meat coordinator and buyer at Whole Foods Inc., defends the artificially inseminated heirlooms, saying they meet customer demand, are more active than Broad Breasted Whites and, like all Whole Foods meat, have Global Animal Partnership welfare ratings.
“With the heritage,” Weening says, “customers cook it, see black spots [from the feathers] and that there isn’t a lot of white meat, and, in many cases, get disappointed.”
For customers seeking a true heritage turkey, even without the APA certification, experts offer several tips: Look for a bony breast and big, meaty legs on a small bird. If you’re buying at a farmers market or from a small butcher that can name its supplier, ask the farmer how long it took to grow: Heritage birds take about six months, compared to three to four months for commercial varieties. And accept that the bird might not be 100 percent heritage—and that that’s all right, too.
“10 percent is still better than zero percent,” Martins says. “It’s a move in the right direction.”