Butterball Is Not Turkey, And Other Thanksgiving Truths

Turkey wearing a tux and holding a butcher knife

Happy Thanksgiving!: Believe it or not, this is not the weirdest anthropomorphic turkey photo we found. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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My friend Leslie has a term for certain foods. Delivery vehicles, she calls them.

As in: a hot dog is a delivery vehicle for spicy brown mustard and sauerkraut. Or: birthday cake is a delivery vehicle for thick layers of frosting.

Turkey, to Leslie, is the ultimate in delivery vehicles, a big fat excuse to wolf down mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls, gravy and all the other starchy goodies that dominate the Thanksgiving table — things she actually looks forward to eating.

Leslie, you see, hates turkey. "Doesn't everybody?" she asks. "I mean, secretly?"

She has a point — how often do you roast a turkey the other 364 days of the year? — though it's a good thing she's not running for elected office. Can you imagine? In the era of the flag pin, disavowing an allegiance to the great-American bird is a little like asking to be tarred as a godless socialist.

The reason Leslie hates turkey, I keep trying to tell her, is because she hasn't really had turkey.

"What have I had?"

"You've had Butterball."

How and why to escape Butterball, after the jump...

Butterball: It's a little like saying you're swearing off cars because all they do is get into accidents and break down.

I was a turkey hater, too, before I was turned on to an heirloom variety a few years ago known as Red Bourbon, one of about five remaining breeds of turkey that precede the arrival of the white man. A few bites in, I vowed never to so much as look at a Butterball again. (You'll forgive the undertones of conversion and creeping sense of superiority — that's how those of us who've gone native tend to talk. We're a little like people who've switched from PC to Mac, zealous and strident and convinced we are in possession of The Way.)

What do I love about them?

For one, they don't look like turkeys — or what we've come to think turkeys looks like. They haven't been engineered for the mass market, so they lack the over-enlarged breasts of commercial birds. They're not pale-white doorstops. They look like they're relaxing on chaise lounges — beautifully elongated birds at ease.

The meat cooks up slightly pink and has a gamy richness that's hard to reconcile with the dry, often tasteless meat I grew up eating and came to know as turkey. It's tempting to say that heirloom turkeys eat like a different species altogether, except that it suggests that commercial, mass-market varieties are the norm and not the exception. The skin, far from the thin, milky-white membrane that you see on Butterballs, is thick, which is a great plus for a good cook. When treated right — roasted over high heat and swabbed with lots and lots of butter (I also paint on layers of maple syrup, impasto-style) — it produces something close to cracklin.

"What can I get anyone?" I asked the table last year.

"More skin," someone said.

(What don't I love? I don't love the cost, which can be three and four times as much as you'd pay for a Butterball. Of course, you don't spend for a jug of Gallo and expect Pinot Noir.)

In recent years, heirloom turkeys have attracted a lot of attention from the foodie press. They make for a good dinner-time story, the bird that comes closest to what the pilgrims and Indians ate at the first Thanksgiving. And the story of these native birds' reemergence, in the last decade, after a half-century of agribusiness and processed foods have changed how and what we eat. The restoration of the old ways, a return to tradition, a reject of processed food. All the wonderful things we hear from the Slow Food movement and the high-church priests and priestesses of local, seasonal and organic.

But backstory and politics are not everything.

In food, they're more like the seasoning, the sauce. An enhancement, not a substitute. Heirlooms are no delivery vehicle. They're the thing itself.

Todd Kliman is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic and the food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine. The Wild Vine, his book about the Rosetta stone of American wine, is due in 2009.

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