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Talking turkey
Want an old-fashioned Thanksgiving? An old-fashioned bird will cost more -- but may be worth it.
November 12, 2004: 2:45 PM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - To my way of thinking, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday.

It revolves around food and drink, not gifts. Watching football on TV isn't just indulged, it's encouraged. Kids even get their own table, where they can slurp their milk, spoon-flip peas and feed turnips to the dog.

What could be better than all that? Not much, except maybe the turkey.

The big roasted bird that virtually all Americans will eat this November is a testament to the ingenuity and efficiency of modern, corporate farming.

The world's dominant turkey breed, the Broadbreasted White, is easy to raise, cheap to process, and produces meat that many people find tasty.

If it's dry or bland, we blame the chef and ladle on more gravy. After all, at 49 cents a pound, who's to quibble?

Particular people willing to spend up to $4 a pound for turkey, that's who.

Though they represent just a tiny fraction of the overall market, such folks say it's worth it to pay a lot more for a better bird.

As a result, business is booming for turkey farmers raising so-called heritage breeds. These are natural, old-fashioned varieties whose ancestors roamed the American Farm Belt centuries before anyone heard of Butterball.

Fans say they're the most flavorful turkeys ever eaten.

Touting a tastier turkey

The typical modern turkey "was developed to grow quickly in confinement pens, where it is fed grains, fillers (including turkey fat and feathers), and a daily dose of antibiotics," according to a study by Slow Food, the culinary activist group. "It is often injected with a saline mix before packaging, and it must be salted, brined, stuffed, basted, and spread with condiments before it can be eaten."

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In contrast, "heritage turkeys were bred to grow outdoors, ranging freely and eating a varied diet," the manifesto notes. "When raised this way, the birds are healthy, and their meat is rich, succulent, and flavorful."

The gourmands at Slow Food aren't a bunch of angry vegans drunk on carrot juice. They are not opposed to meat eating, just bad eating. So they've launched a campaign in support of tastier turkeys, working with farmers and retailers to expand and improve the varieties you can buy.

The group has identified for preservation and promotion seven heritage breeds: the Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Standard Bronze, Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, White Midget, and the Beltsville Small White. Each was once plentiful, but came close to extinction in recent years.

The preservation movement changed that.

Take the Narragansett, for example. It's the oldest turkey breed in North America, as close as it gets to the wild ones the Pilgrims ate.

Where to buy Heritage Turkeys
You may find traditional breeds at good butchers and at many specialty food retailers. On the Web, try these retailers.
Web sitePhone
Heritage Foods USA212-980-6603
D'Artagnan Foods800-327-8246
Mary's Turkeys888-666-8244

For generations, it was the nation's most popular variety. But in a 1997 census, only 6 birds were still breeding, according to Marjorie Bender, a researcher at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, N.C.

Today, nearly 400 Narragansetts are breeding. Given that each hen can give birth to up to 30 poults (that's what turkeys call their chicks) a year, it looks like the variety has been saved.

Thank consumers -- as well as specialty retailers and the foodie press -- for raising awareness and spurring demand.

More fowl words
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"People are interested in knowing where their food comes from," says Bender. "They want it to be healthful. And they want farm animals to be humanely raised."

To be sure, the number of folks willing to pay $4 a pound for turkey will always be small. Even the most fervent advocates acknowledge that traditional breeds account for only 2 percent of the total market, at best.

Still, that amounts to tens of thousands of people or more. This year, maybe you could join them.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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