AROUND THIS TIME OF YEAR, when thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, the hunt for the perfect centerpiece of the meal begins—we’re talking turkey here. The choices used to be simple (or nonexistent): fresh or frozen, under 10 pounds or over 20 pounds, raised in a factory and pumped with water, hormones and antibiotics, or raised in a different factory and pumped with water, hormones and antibiotics. Cooking the family bird was probably more art than science (home-grown cooking methods still include everything from paper bags to garbage cans), but, somehow, most survived the holiday either triumphant with a perfectly cooked bird, or despondent while eating more sides to make up for a dry, tasteless carcass.
You’d never know it, but today’s domesticated turkey is descended from our native wild turkey. Apocryphal as it seems, the Jamestown settlers and the New England Puritans actually encountered the Eastern wild turkey, one of the six subspecies of North American wild turkey that, because of its abundance, became an important part of their diet. Turkey may have been served as part of the Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth in 1621, but the jury is still out on whether it was the focal point of the meal. As Thanksgiving became an annual tradition in the United States (beginning in earnest with Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863), turkey became the centerpiece of the meal probably as a result of prevailing Victorian traditions.
In 2011, United States turkey production reached almost 250 million birds, about 28 million of them consumed on Thanksgiving Day alone. The vast majority of turkeys are commercially produced Broad-Breasted Whites, a breed genetically engineered for their abnormally large breasts. The bodies of factory-raised turkeys are often so disproportionate that the birds have trouble standing or walking and are forced to rely on artificial insemination for reproduction. Genetic diversity is low, making commercial turkeys more prone to disease and therefore more likely to be treated with antibiotics. The Broad-Breasted White has also been bred to be abnormally quick to mature—it reaches market weight in a mere 14 to 18 weeks (about half as long as it takes a native bird to reach the same weight).
There are alternatives to factory-raised turkeys (not including the tofu variety). Several local farms raise Broad-Breasted Whites using free-range and organic methods, but perhaps the most notable alternative is the “heritage turkey.” According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, heritage turkeys must be naturally mating, have a long, productive outdoor lifespan, and must have a “normal,” slow growth rate (reaching market weight in about 28 weeks). There are several varieties of heritage turkeys, including Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm, among others. Many natural varieties of turkeys were nearly extinct at the end of the nineteenth century, but renewed interest in their preservation has allowed the birds to rebound significantly in many areas—flocks of them are a common sight in the Northeast, even in populated areas. As paradoxical as it seems, the growing demand for heritage birds to eat has helped to secure the future of these wild breeds.
You’ll pay a little more for a free-range, organic white turkey ($2 to $4 per pound), and a lot more for a heritage turkey ($6 to $10 per pound). Free-range, organic white birds will have a bit firmer texture and a deeper flavor than the factory raised grocery-store brands, but a heritage turkey is a different experience altogether: Expect an even split between white meat and dark meat, a richer texture, as well as a pleasant, gamey flavor (what some say turkey is “supposed” to taste like).
Because the flavor of turkey marries well with so many ingredients, turkey can be braised, roasted, grilled, fried, boiled, broiled or barbecued. At Another Fork in the Road in Milan, Chef Jamie Parry braises turkey legs to a succulent finish in red wine and miso. For breakfast (lunch or dinner), Chef Juan Romera first confits turkey legs and then shreds the meat with onions, garlic and potatoes for a delicious rendition of hash.
The local farmer who raised your bird may have some hints on how to prepare it, as well. If you’re cooking the whole bird, the general rule of thumb is to be sure it reaches an internal temperature of 155-160 degrees. Allow the turkey to sit an additional 20 minutes with the oven door open, until it reaches 160-165 degrees.