Whether it's turkeys or tomatoes, heirloom varieties are hot, hot, hot. More people are looking for foods that hark back to an era before industrial agriculture and genetic manipulation. You might be one of those people opting for a "heritage" turkey this Thanksgiving. But are you sure you're getting a real heritage turkey? SHOCKER: You might not be.
First of all, a quick lowdown on what heritage actually means: It does not mean organic, all natural, or free range, though a true heritage bird is probably all of those things. Heritage refers to 10 specific breeds of turkey (if you want to know what they are, click here). These breeds were raised in the U.S. prior to the 1950s, when the poultry industry began to genetically engineer (through cross breeding) the commodity, broad-breasted white turkeys most people eat today.
Heritage birds differ from broad-breasted whites in a number of ways: They're smaller and prettier, often with elegant dark or colored feathers. They mature more slowly (24 to 30 weeks, versus about 12 to 18 weeks for a commodity turkey), and can live longer—up to 15 years, as opposed to a year and a half. Broad-breasted turkeys are engineered to grow so big that they cannot reproduce on their own, and at times even have trouble walking. Therefore, they must be artificially inseminated. Heritage birds can have sex normally, and have big, strong legs that can walk just fine. Heritage birds are gamier-tasting, have darker meat, and can be much tougher and harder to cook (we've got some tips here). They're closer to wild birds than the mushier, whiter turkeys bred for obesity and early youth. And heritage birds are more expensive to raise, and more expensive per pound to buy.
So how do you know you're getting a heritage bird? You don't. There is no official certification program for the identification and labeling of heritage birds the way there is for organics. Although turkey producers are required to submit documentation to the USDA showing that the turkeys they're going to call heritage are one of the officially recognized heritage breeds, this process is not as strict and regulated as needed to be dependably reliable. For instance: "I have seen people think they have heritage birds because they have dark feathers," says Frank Reese, a heritage turkey farmer in Kansas. "But the color of the feathers don't mean a thing."
Some grocery stores sidestep the labeling issue by advertising "heritage" birds in circulars, or on signs, but then the birds they're actually selling are standard fast-growing industrial turkeys.
Read the fine print. Others imply that the bird is heritage on the package, when it really isn't. In Whole Foods in San Francisco, for instance, you can buy Diestel "American Heirloom Collection" turkeys, which, the fine print says, are "derived from a Bronze and an Auburn" turkey. (Bronze and Auburns are two heritage-breed turkeys.) However, the heirloom turkeys sold by Diestel are actually an organically raised crossbreed that incorporates both heritage genes and nonheritage. "We have those old breeds, and cross them and tweak them to get a turkey that we think performs well on the table," says President Tim Diestel. The actual heritage breeds, Diestel correctly notes, don't have a lot of meat on them, and can be "disappointing" to customers who are used to big, fat, juicy commodity birds. His bird, he says, is like the best of both worlds: It contains a bit more dark meat and rich turkey taste than a typical bird, but is still big and juicy. And though Diestel didn't say it, his birds no doubt also deliver a higher pound-for-pound feeling of virtuousness among those who feel they're buying something more natural.
True heritage farmers like Frank Reese are at a disadvantage to farmers like Diestel if customers aren't educated as to the difference between real and faux heritage. It's much more expensive to raise an actual heritage turkey, despite the higher sale cost. And the wild-west world of heritage labeling we're living in now isn't helping matters. However, Patrick Martins, the founder of Heritage Foods USA, which grew out of Slow Food USA (though it's now an independent company), says he thinks the growing interest in heritage turkeys will eventually lead to stricter rules: "In order to get any term officialized, it first has to go through a blurry phase, and then it starts getting legalized and officialized."
Until then, anybody wishing to get their hands on an actual breed of bird that looks and tastes pretty much as it did 100 years ago is advised to (1) read the fine print and apply critical thinking, and (2) call the farmer and ask what their definition of heritage is. Be sure and mention the natural sex part—don't be embarrassed.
Header image: uncrate.com