Heritage turkey breeders preserve Thanksgiving bird tradition

Wed Nov 26, 2014 2:08pm EST
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By Colleen Jenkins

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (Reuters) - A tiny but growing number of the 46 million turkeys destined to be eaten in American this Thanksgiving can trace their lineage to the birds that graced the tables of the country's early settlers.

Cheaper, big-breasted turkeys full of the white meat consumers now crave have largely pushed out the historic varieties, but small poultry breeders are working to return the holiday's signature dish to its roots.

More than nostalgia, the movement seeks to preserve the genetic diversity of a famed holiday fowl, while also catering to foodies who prefer the robust taste of the heritage turkeys' dark meat.

"This is our historical foundation of our food," said Frank Reese Jr., a fourth-generation Kansas farmer considered the master of heritage turkey breeding.

At her homestead farm in rural North Carolina, Julie Gauthier butchered and dressed 14 heritage turkeys this week, plucking each feather by hand before selling the pastured birds fresh to customers who had placed orders as early as August.

The turkeys, also known as "Standard Bred," can take twice as long to grow to full size and cost as much as six times more per pound than those popularly sold in grocery store freezers.

"Heritage turkey is a superior product to a supermarket turkey," said Gauthier, a veterinary epidemiologist who also raises rare chickens, ducks and geese on her Wake Forest farm.

"They're much more flavorful," she added.   Continued...

A group of Beltsville Small White turkeys spend time in a field at the farm of Julie Gauthier in Wake Forest, North Carolina, November 20, 2014.  REUTERS/Chris Keane