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Talking Turkey

turkey, Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to come together and give thanks. It’s the most celebrated (and most heavily traveled!) time of the year. Thanksgiving is a time to share, to give, and to be grateful for all that we have.

It’s also a time to eat. The centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners is a turkey, surrounded by home cooked, delicious vegetables, dressings, condiments and pies.

In the spirit of the holiday, we've brought you a selection of our favorite recipes, as well as some information on the food that you'll be eating. We've also included links to other sites.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

What’s wrong with the Turkey?

The traditional Thanksgiving turkey is different today than it was 50 years ago. Today, 99% of all turkeys raised in the U.S. are the “Broadbreasted White” variety, sometimes also called the “Large White.”

These birds are raised in confinement in extremely crowded conditions on factory farms.  G. They live in unnatural, uncomfortable conditions and are fed a steady diet of grain and supplements like antibiotics, rather than the grubs, bugs and grasses they would eat in nature.

They are raised this way because of their large, white meaty breast. The breasts of these turkeys are so large that they are unable to reproduce naturally. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, without artificial insemination performed by humans, this variety of bird would become extinct in just one generation.

Industrial turkeys are often injected with saline solution and vegetable oils to improve the taste and texture of the meat. These factory farmed birds tend to be dry and tasteless, so cooks have developed a variety of methods to try to improve the taste. Turkeys are now marinated, brined, deep fried and covered with syrups, spices and herbs.

What You Can Do

If you are tired of eating tasteless holiday meat, you have options. You can order a heritage  Gturkey, or look for organic and/or sustainable birds at butchers, specialty shops and farmers markets around the country.

Heritage turkeys

There is a movement to reintroduce different varieties of turkeys to the public. Many of these birds originated in the United States. Groups like Slow Food USA and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are working to re-introduce genetically diversified varieties of animals, including turkeys, that were raised years ago. These animals are often called “heritage” breeds.

Heritage turkeys are raised outdoors, freely roam on pasture, and eat the varied diet nature intended them to eat, unlike most turkeys today that are raised indoors in confinement and are fed grains, fillers and supplements like antibiotics.

Whereas conventional supermarket turkeys can be tasteless and dry, heritage birds raised outdoors are juicy and succulent and taste the way a turkey is supposed to taste. Examples of heritage turkeys include:

(The * means the bird originated in North America.)

Not only do heritage turkeys taste better, they are genetically diverse, which is very important. The factory farmed Broadbreasted Whites, 99% of all turkeys, are genetically the same, which means an illness could spread through that breed and wipe them out. By raising genetically diverse turkeys, we are ensuring the survival of the species.

Heritage turkeys cost more money, but consumers rave about the great taste and say once you buy one, you can’t go back to the tasteless white turkeys found in most supermarkets. One drawback to buying a heritage bird is that you must often order in advance. Many farmers only raise enough turkeys to cover the demand, so most consumers order their birds months in advance.

Organic and sustainable turkeys

If you aren’t ready yet to buy a heritage turkey, or can’t find one, your other option is to buy an organic and/or sustainable bird. An organic turkey is certified by the USDA and must be raised under strict guidelines – no antibiotics, no growth enhancers, only organic feed, and the animals must be given access to outdoors. The animals can be a heritage breed, or the more common Broadbreasted White.

Farmers who raise sustainable turkeys are not overseen by any group or agency, and have no legal guidelines to follow, although many exceed the USDA organic standards when raising their birds. Sustainable farmers look to preserve the land, treat their animals and workers humanely, and help support the local community. Sustainable turkeys can be a heritage breed, or can also be the Broadbreasted White.

What’s the difference between a heritage, organic and sustainable turkey?

A heritage turkey has a specific set of genetic traits and was first raised years ago. Almost all heritage turkeys are near extinction, so efforts are underway to reintroduce them to the public. Even though there aren’t legal or set guidelines for heritage animals, to be truly heritage the animal must have a specific set of genetic traits and be raised sustainably. And by the nature of their breed, it is almost impossible to raise heritage animals any other way than sustainably. The animals must be raised on pasture and be given room to carry out their natural behaviors. But if you are purchasing a heritage animal and want details on how the bird was raised, ask the farmer.

Organic and sustainable farmers raise all types of turkeys - some raise heritage breeds, but others raise the Broadbreasted Whites, the type of turkey found on factory farms. The difference is that these animals are treated humanely and are not subjected to the same conditions of confinement as on a factory farm.

What should I buy?

Finding the right type of turkey, or any type of meat, can be confusing. One thing to remember is that you should know where your bird came from. If the person selling you the turkey is not the farmer, they should at least be able to tell you its source. To find out how your animal was raised, ask the farmer.

Buy a Local Bird

To find a heritage, organic or sustainable turkey, visit the Eat Well Guide’s Advanced Search page and search for heritage, organic and sustainable turkeys in your area.

More on Thanksgiving

The History of Thanksgiving
From the History Channel, a brief history of Thanksgiving, including what might and might not have really been served at the Thanksgiving meal in 1621, which is often credited as the first Thanksgiving feast, though there are differing stories about where Thanksgiving originated.