Talking turkey

Metropolitan Home (published in altered form)

Todd Wickstrom has seen the future, and it looks very specific. One day Americans could have as many choices in meats as they now do in wines. No one will just order turkey for Thanksgiving, any more than they now settle for red when they could have zinfandel, pinot noir or syrah. The new selection will be among breeds: American Bronze or Bourbon Red or Narragansett, each with its own distinct flavor and texture.

Before agriculture turned industrial, and Butterballs became the holiday standard, small farms raised a variety of turkeys with taste and integrity. Wickstrom and another advocate of Slow Food, Patrick Martins, founded Heritage Foods USA to go back to those days, to revive and market the breeds that have been long lost to a system that puts a premium on quantity and consistency over flavor. Starting in 2001 with a fourth-generation poultry breeder named Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Turkey Farm in Kansas, the company has built a network of farmers determined to grow food right, the old-fashioned way.


The goal is to do for livestock what heirloom tomato growers have done for salads and BLTs: bring back true taste to the American table while saving idiosyncratic foods from extinction. In the process, Heritage Foods also hopes to rescue small farms, which are increasingly being swallowed up by agribusiness consolidation and the great land grab in which McMansions are worth more Macintosh apples grown locally.


An American Bronze turkey could not be more unlike the bloated birds hoisted out of so many ovens in November. As Reese points out, repeatedly, commercial turkeys since the 1970s have been bred to be all breast, and to reach market in weeks rather than months or years. They are so top-heavy they can no longer reproduce naturally and so have to be artificially inseminated; neither can they run free and eat the varied diet that creates unique flavor in poultry over a good long life. Even free-range birds seem insipid compared with the dark, fibrous, meaty taste of a heritage turkey, from stock whose lineage can be traced back nearly to the turn of the last century. Reese breeds turkeys descended from a pair given as a wedding present in his family in 1917.


Heritage Foods, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., gives farmers the support they need to bring back these rare breeds, inspecting all farms and providing detailed specifications for raising animals humanely. It also gives farmers packing materials, ice and assistance to ship to buyers who order on the web site, The business is modeled more on Newman’s Own than Niman Ranch, Wickstrom says, as “a for-profit company whose profit goes back to helping others.”


Traceability is a key concept to Heritage Foods at a time when one batch of ground beef or ice cream can infect consumers in many states thanks to homogenized and standardized shipping. Every turkey comes with a label so that buyers can learn where and how the bird was raised and by whom. The turkeys are not necessarily organic; as Wickstrom says, “We’re not promoting semantics, only integrity.”


Heritage turkeys cook very differently from even the best birds available in most farmers’ markets and specialty stores and especially in supermarkets. The legs are much skinnier, so they roast (and dry out) faster, while the breast juts up much farther and can cook unevenly. Simply roasting the bird is tricky. Reese, whose great-grandmother raised turkeys and whose mother taught him to cook them, advises adding a cup of water to the roasting pan and sealing it so that the meat almost steams to tenderness. When the foil is removed near the end of cooking, the skin will crisp to perfection, with singular flavor. These turkeys do not need to be brined or even massaged with butter. Nothing more than salt, pepper and maybe a little sage is needed.


Heritage Foods is now dealing with 100 farms around the country that raise everything from ducks to beans, Wickstrom said. Chefs buy much of what the company can sell, at restaurants including Lupa and Five Ninth in New York City.

The first year it sold 700 turkeys; for this Thanksgiving networked farmers are raising 15,000. Not all will be perfect enough to ship, and Heritage Foods is “looking into sausage recipes if we have too many,” Wickstrom said. (Frozen turkeys are available year round, or as supplies last.)


Heritage turkeys are not inexpensive, at $199 for the largest, a fresh one weighing around 19 pounds. But as Reese notes, turkeys in the Depression sold for $1 a pound. A bird that cheap today comes with a hidden higher cost.

Wickstrom says it all when he points out that many of the farmers who have signed on with Heritage Foods are older, and many more worry that this could be their last year of farming land worked by their fathers and grandfathers. “The heritage is riding on their shoulders,” he said. “This is a way to salvage it.”