Heritage Turkeys, the Better Holiday Bird

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Old-fashioned breeds known as heritage turkeys taste better, says slow-food expert Patrick Martins, and they can actually fly.

ALISON STEWART, host:

If I say to you that is a fine-looking Standard Bronze or a Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, White Holland, Royal Palm, White Midget and, or Beltsville Small White. Would you know what the heck I'm talking about?

MIKE PESCA, host:

Should I slap you?

STEWART: No, I don't think so. They're heritage turkeys, of course. Not only do they apparently taste better, according to foodies, but they're also a way to be environmentally conscious. Never heard of them? Strictly, a Butterball guy or gal. Listen up, maybe next Thanksgiving you'll be on the HT bandwagon.

Our guest is Patrick Martins, head of the Slow Food USA Office and author of the "Slow Food Guide to New York Restaurants." He is the co-founder of Heritage Food, which sells this kind of turkeys.

Hi, Patrick.

Mr. PATRICK MARTINS (Founder, Slow Food USA): Hi. Thanks for having me.

STEWART: Thanks for coming on to explain these all to us. So what defines a bird as a heritage turkey as opposed to the ones that walked across my lawn upstate or the ones in the supermarket?

Mr. MARTINS: Well, the ones that walk across in your upstate are wild and the ones in the supermarket are, I don't even know what to call them. They're like space aliens.

PESCA: Decidedly not wild?

STEWART: What did you say Patrick?

Mr. MARTINS: They're like space aliens…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTINS: …the ones in the supermarket.

STEWART: Why do you say they're like space aliens?

Mr. MARTINS: Well, because they are a product of industry. There were a bunch of guys in a boardroom that were like how could we make more money with turkeys? They were like, well, let's breed - inbreed them to have certain traits. Let's, let them live indoors for their whole lives. Let's, if they don't grow enough, let's, you know, cut their beaks off so they eat more food.

Let's, you know, cut their toes off, stuff them in with each other. I mean, all of these very sad and natural things, pump them salt just as water, just to get them to weigh more. I mean, really these horrible things, and that's really what it's become and that's why you can get turkeys that, you know, free at the bank when you sign up for a checking account, or you know, for 29 cents a pound or something like that. But that's really not a very natural thing and it certainly not healthy for people to eat those birds, and some pumped with antibiotics and things like that.

STEWART: So, Patrick, a traditional kind of bird, this heritage turkey, what makes them different? Explain some of the differences in terms of the taste, in terms of the texture or how they're raised?

Mr. MARTINS: Well, a heritage turkey is genetically pure. It's a pure line that can be traced back, you know, a hundred years oftentimes and actually they are define by the American Poultry Association and they have certain traits, so those are those varieties you gave us, you know. The Standard Bronze, you know, comes from England. The Narragansett, you know as well and they each have their own histories and their own farmers that raised them in certain ways and they looked a certain way. The Bourbon Red, for instance, has red feathers and the Black because, you know, it's completely black.

So that each have their own characteristics and then they're also allowed to be in an environment where those natural characteristics can manifest themselves, can express themselves so they're allowed to run, to fly. They mate naturally.

STEWART: Oh, imagine that, so they can fly and mate naturally.

Mr. MARTINS: And the other ones can't - the industrial ones are so over bred for white breast meat, which again these guys used to, you know, things that everyone wants that they can't even walk. They certainly cannot fly, but they can mate naturally.

So heritage birds are actually, naturally mating and they'll only come around once a year because locked to their own devices, turkey will only have sex in, you know, March, April, May and be ready, you know, to be eaten…

STEWART: What? They're going spring break?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: This is only to go to Fort Lauderdale and have a good time. So I got to imagine if they're more costly than what we get in the store.

Mr. MARTINS: No, they absolutely aren't, but I think that the - that we pay, you know, maybe four, you know, a heritage turkey should cost around $4 or $5 a pound. But if you were to go to the farm and buy it and that's the true cost. It's the 69 cents a pound. That's the false cost.

That doesn't, you know, there are all these other costs that doesn't take into account. And so, you know, it costs more, but even when you FedEx one of our birds to your table and end up costing like a $200, let's say for a 20-pound bird, but that feeds 20 people. So you're only really talking about $7, $8 a person for the centerpiece of the most important meal of the year. So it's really not that traumatic in their minds.

STEWART: And, Patrick, before I let you go, I'll give a little teaser that a lot of people think that eating this heritage birds is better for the environment. Can you encapsulate that for us?

Mr. MARTINS: Yeah, you can be, you know, maudlin and politically correct at the same time, you know, you can go out in this and politically correct. It's actually you're helping protect the environment. You're, you know, supporting small family farms, you know, when you buy heritage birds.

And, you know, actually a lot of people don't know this. These birds that you just mentioned are endangered. They've been pushed aside by industrial agriculture and farmers…

STEWART: But then shouldn't we eat, we shouldn't eat them as they're endangered though…

Mr. MARTINS: Actually, their job is to be food of the pig, the sheep, the duck, the goose. Their job, the turkey, their job they exist on this planet because we eat them.

STEWART: All right, I will send all my vegan e-mail your way, but I understand your point. Hey, Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods, thank you so much for walking us through all things heritage turkeys.

Mr. MARTINS: Thank you.

STEWART: Have a good holiday.

Mr. MARTINS: Bye.

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