Local For the Holidays… Of Course!

Heirloom vegetables are a familiar term – conveying the idea of plants bred and selected over years of patient work for specific traits and local conditions, as well as the resulting seeds carefully passed down generations.  The livestock equivalent is “heritage” breed.

When it comes to turkeys, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is specific: heritage turkeys must reproduce and be genetically maintained through natural mating; are able to live outdoors a long productive life (5-7 years for hens, 3-5 years for toms); and grow “slowly” (by modern commercial standards), naturally building a robust skeleton and internal organs before they grow meat — reaching marketable size in 28 weeks or more. And those birds are magnificent!

Standard Bronze Turkey. Photo by and at Crowfoot Farm in Amissville, VA


Contrast that to most turkeys sold in the US:  the Broad Breasted White and the modern Broad Breasted Bronze, bred in the mid-20th century to grow enormous breasts on shorter legs – fast. So fast that their skeleton isn’t strong enough to support their weight causing joint and cardiovascular issues; and so big the animals can neither mate nor move well. Not that growers want them to move:  a sedentary bird expands less calories. In fact, they aren’t encouraged to move:  overcrowded pens in window-less hangars are the rules at factory-farms. The breeds are maintained through artificial insemination, and reach a marketable size in only 14 weeks.

By choosing a local heritage turkey, you support a more humane and sustainable production system  and the farm families who practice animal husbandry. You help maintain our history as heritage breeds are the agricultural equivalents of national monuments. You also help our livestock genetic diversity (an important part of food security). Finally, you cast your vote for real food. Said my husband when eating the heritage Turkey Roulade I made last year: “If you hadn’t told me it was turkey, I would have thought it was pork”.  Indeed, the taste is boldly rich, the texture never stringy:  when you eat it, you finally understand why turkeys were bred for the table.

Make sure you are buying a heritage breed such as Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, (Standard) Bronze, Chocolate,, Narragansett,  and others listed on the Livestock Conservancy web site.  (By the way, do take the time to read the description and brief history of each breed – it’s fascinating.) When buying your turkey, ask the farmer what he or she is selling. A picture on the wrapper is certainly not enough…  In fact, you’ll see the picture of a heritage turkey on birds sold in the supermarket, although those are most certainly Broad Breasted Whites.

Heritage turkeys are smaller birds, with smaller breasts and longer more powerful legs — if you, like me. prefer dark meat, you are in for a treat. A heritage turkey costs more than a bird from a factory-farm, starting at $8/lb in my area – and for good reasons too:  it takes considerably more time, labor and resources to raise it – and the initial cost of the kits or eggs is also much greater.  But what a bird! The meat is more muscled, leaner, denser, somewhat darker and intensely flavorful: cook it slowly with plenty of moisture.

Many small farms raise Broad Breasted Whites on pasture, a tremendous improvement over factory-farming. For one, those birds are treated humanely with full access to fresh grass, bugs, fresh air & sunshine. They also taste very good – incredibly better than the ones raised in confinement with a crappy diet —  but they are not as deeply flavorful as a heritage turkey. They sell around $4/lb in my area. As one local farmer told me, the heritage breed have other challenges for the grower: because they can – and do – fly outside of their electrically-fenced pasture, they make an easier prey for predators such as coyotes.

pastured turkey
A flock of pastured Broad Breasted White turkeys at Belle Meade Farm in Sperryville, VA in early November.

Anyway… I bought 2 turkeys this year, a pastured Broad Breasted White from Belle Meade Farm, that I cut up for the freezer. And a Standard Bronze from Crowfoot Farm that will be on the Thanksgiving table.

Our menu is therefore made of things we grew, or purchased from local farms. Exceptions being some of the flour (some is made from locally grown wheat berries), vinegar, sugar, cranberries, nuts and some of the cheeses. We serve dinner as a multiple course affair so as to encourage tasting and conversation.

Sweet Potato Soup *

Baked pears with blue cheese, nuts & cranberries over winter greens

Roasted heritage Bronze Turkey basted with mead

Onion & Potato Gratin

Slow cooked ginger carrots

A sweet potato dish*

Sauteed garlicky kale with peach gastrique

Cheese, salad & fruit

Cranberry Tart* / Lemon grass ice-cream

served with homemade bread, homemade ginger beer and Virginia hard cider.

(* Brought by friends Wendy & Brad who had a phenomenal sweet potato crop… and Brad is a wonderful baker! Never say no when he offers to bring dessert.)

Of course, by tomorrow, I may decide that he broccoli looks really good (which it does) or that celeriac might work better or…, or what about the baby Asian greens? or the pointy cabbage? — there is a lot for sure to be thankful when it comes to this year’s harvest.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.


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