Preserving the classic Thanksgiving turkey

Nov 24, 2011

In honor of Thanksgiving... we're revisiting a Michigan farmer who raises heritage turkeys.

Those are turkeys that have a little bit of a wilder history. Some farmers are trying to keep these older turkey breeds from going extinct.

John Harnois has a yard full of turkeys. He says he knows his turkeys so well, he can speak their language.

"The turkeys pip, they bark, they gobble."

These turkeys are mostly males. They're trying to look all big and macho as they strut around in front of the hens. These birds are the Narragansett breed.

"They're old time turkeys, much closer to wild. They don't have the broad breasts, so proportionally for eating, they have more dark meat to white meat," Harnois said.

People who've tasted a heritage turkey say the flavor is stronger too.

Sara Dickerman did some turkey taste testing for Slate.com. She tasted everything from the Butterball brand to kosher to heritage.

"When you taste one of these heritage breeds you're getting more of a... it begins to taste more like a distinct meat and I'm afraid our vocabulary is so ill suited to describing it, except that it tastes meatier, it tastes more intensely and it just has a resonance that you'll never get in a Butterball," said Dickerman

She says, still, you've got to be pretty committed to buy a heritage turkey. They can cost upwards of a hundred bucks.

Taste and cost aren't the only things that set heritage turkeys apart from the turkeys you find in the grocery store.

Your common grocery store turkey is a breed called the Broad-breasted White. These turkeys have been bred over the years to produce a lot of meat in a short period of time. As a result, they're large breasted birds with short little legs.

John Harnois says that means they can't mate naturally.

"One of the things about heritage birds is they're small enough to mate as opposed to the broad-breasteds which is artificial insemination. With that big breast they just can't do the deed," he said.

But even though heritage turkeys can mate naturally, they haven't been doing so well on their own.

"These birds, the heritage breeds, were real close to dying out," Harnois said. "It's funny... you've gotta eat 'em to keep 'em going. To keep their genetics in the gene pool, there has to be a market for them."

Harnois says he is earning money from his heritage turkeys, but it's not easy money. Heritage turkeys cost a lot to raise, and it takes longer to get them to market weight. And unlike the commercial turkeys, the heritage birds can actually fly the coop.

"You're chasing them, and it's dark out, and you don't know if you're going through poison ivy, if you've got shorts on you've gotta change your pants to long pants... it's a pain."

But he says the late night chases and extra turkey TLC are worth it.

"You don't want everything being the same, and if you only have one thing and something happens to it, there's no more. Where are the turkeys going to come from?," he said.

He says he feels like it's his job to make sure there will always be plenty of different kinds of turkeys to go around.

Happy Thanksgiving!