After years of selective breeding, only one breed of turkey, the aptly named Broadbreasted White, remains in large-scale production in the United States. For about 30 years, it has been the breeding stock owned by the three major companies, Hybrid Turkeys of Ontario, Canada; British United Turkeys of America in Lewisburg, W. Va.; and Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms, Sonoma, Calif. A blowzy specimen with short stubby legs, its disproportionate supply of white meat has come at the expense of taste and texture. It’s stupid to boot.
The joke about turkeys drowning in the rain may actually have some basis in fact. Glenn Drowns, secretary-treasurer of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, and owner of the Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, a preservation farm, is infuriated by the degradation of the turkey. ”The commercial guys say they have to keep the turkeys in buildings because they’d drown in the rain,” he said. ”It makes my blood pressure boil. Next year I’m going to raise some of them to see if they are that far gone.”
Because most Americans aren’t old enough to have eaten the old-fashioned turkey, they have no idea what they are missing. The rest of us just forgot over the years, lulled into thinking that new is improved. Tasting the four heritage turkeys against two Broadbreasted Whites, one of which was free range, reminded me why the Thanksgiving turkey was so eagerly looked forward to 50 years ago, and why, today, cooks have had to dream up dozens of ways of making it taste better.
The common ancestor for all heritage breeds is the wild turkey, native to these shores. Wild turkeys went from Central America to Europe with the first explorers. Then they were imported to North America by English settlers as the black Spanish turkey, which was bred with the wild North American turkey. The Standard Bronze was the result and the other breeds followed: the Narragansett from Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island; the Bourbon from Bourbon County, Ky., and the Jersey Buff from New Jersey.