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Heritage turkey breeds may be making a comeback

Thursday, November 21, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

A deeply bronzed, roasted turkey proudly presented on the dining room table is the revered symbol of Thanksgiving. Norman Rockwell painted such a scene in 1943 (can't you see it now?).

Rockwell's model turkey was undoubtedly a breed called the American Bronze. But the Bronze breed and most other turkeys shot by our forefathers and roasted by our foremothers have become all but extinct. If you are younger than 50, you may never have tasted these turkeys.


A Jersey Buff turkey nestles cozily among a herd of many types of heritage turkeys at the farm of Bill Yockey in Linesville, Crawford County. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The Narragansett, the oldest U.S. turkey breed and once the foundation of the New England turkey industry, has been reduced to just a few hundred birds. Jersey Buffs, Bourbon Reds and about 15 or so others are all but gone. These rare turkeys are called heritage breeds. Today, they are raised by 300 or fewer small-scale breeders. They lost their market share to the development of the meatier, heavy-chested turkeys found in supermarkets today.

Will the heritage turkeys be lost forever?

Not only is there hope for their salvation, there is action. Much of the credit goes to a conservationist movement that includes the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Rare Heritage Turkey Association and Slow Food USA, a not-for-profit, volunteer organization of food lovers. Slow Food is committed to saving endangered breeds of turkey by encouraging farmers to grow them and consumers to demand them.


Let's call a timeout for a quick backgrounder.

Slow Food supports the artisans who grow, produce, market, prepare and serve wholesome food. In 1996, Slow Food developed a project called the Ark of Taste, which preserves endangered tastes and celebrates them by creating a demand by the public. Doing this may reverse their decline. Besides turkeys, a universe of animal breeds, fruits and vegetables, cured meats, cheeses and even such foods as vinegars, pastas and pastries have been endangered by agricultural standardization.

Slow Food has adopted four turkey breeds for its version of Noah's Ark -- the Narragansett, the Bourbon Red, the Jersey Buff and the Standard Bronze.

Cut to the local scene.

Tasting heritage turkeys

Earlier this month, 65 Slow Food Pittsburgh members and guests threw their support behind the Ark project. They bought three heritage turkeys, a wild turkey and a supermarket broad-breasted standard, and held a Pilgrim potluck supper and turkey tasting on Mount Washington.

Heritage turkey breeder Bill Yockey lives in Linesville, Crawford County, near Meadville. He supplied the turkeys and agreed to be the guest speaker.

Chef Len Spampinato of Aromas Fine Catering shows Peter Haigh, left front, and Ken Nagy the finer points of turkey carving at a recent gathering of Slow Food proponents in Mount Washington. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Since you can't listen on an empty stomach, first we ate.

Nobody knew what to expect. The appearance, flavor and texture of the endangered birds were quite different from today's bird.

This was the lineup, each turkey weighing about 18 pounds: the Narragansett, Jersey Buff, the Midget White (also on the endangered list) and a farm-raised wild turkey.

For contrast and comparison, there was a Broadbreasted White (sometimes called the Large White) -- a brand-name supermarket staple.

Executive chef Leonard Spampinato of Aromas Fine Catering, Ben Avon, and a member of Slow Food Pittsburgh, roasted the birds. His credentials include cooking from Boston to California and the Caribbean, and he has cooked twice at the James Beard house in Manhattan.

He volunteered to cook the turkey on his day off. "I believe people should have opportunities to taste food the way it should taste -- naturally raised and not processed," he said. "This is the way I want to eat, and sharing is what good food is all about.

"Raw, these birds are dramatically different. The commercial one was pale, almost white with no marks, scars or visible feathers. I could push my fingers into the body because the skin was so thin and the flesh so soft. The heritage turkeys, on the other hand, have thick, tight skin, some of it bruised, and the muscular flesh is resistant to the push of a finger. To cook, I rubbed the turkeys with butter, stuffed them with herbs only and roasted them in identical fashion."



Fresh Turkeys

Here is a sampling of farms and outlets that offer fresh turkeys. These are not heritage birds.

Eichner's Farm, Wexford. Fresh, free-range turkeys raised without antibiotics or hormones. The farm is sold out for the holidays this year, but you can still make a reservation for dinner at Hyeholde Restaurant in Moon. They've been roasting Eichner's turkeys for a dozen years. Reserve your turkey next October for Thanksgiving 2003. Phone: 724-935-2897.

Aaron Schwartz Farm. Schwartz is an Amish farmer from Sligo, Pa. This year's supply of his certified USDA-inspected organic and free-range turkeys is sold out. Schwartz has no telephone, but to reserve for next year, contact Don at Kretschmann Farm by e-mail only, please: kmann@usaor.net.

Pounds Turkey Farm, Leechburg. Free of additives, antibiotics and hormones. Orders may be taken at the farm for pickup. Pounds' turkeys are also available at some area markets: Brilliant Market in Aspinwall, Schramm's in Export, Tom Friday's in McKees Rocks, Eighty-Four packing in Eighty Four (Wasington County), Select Market in Sewickley and others. Phone: 724-845-7661.

Four Seasons Farm, Butler. Owners Jim and Rita Kennedy know a lot about poultry. Their all-natural fresh turkeys are free of additives, antibiotics and hormones. They are sold at the Co-operative Farmer's Market of East Liberty every Saturday morning. If you don't want turkey this year, check out their chickens, ducks, geese, capons, smoked and fresh pheasant, as well as beef. Place orders as soon as you can. Phone: 724-898-2316 or 724-898-1670.

Whole Foods Market, East Liberty. Free-range turkeys, free of additives, antibiotics and hormones. Special orders only are taken for certified organic turkeys. Phone: 412-441-7960.

Iffts Turkey Farm, Evans City. Free of steroids and hormones. Limited number, but still taking orders for the holidays. Pick up orders at the farm only. Phone: 724-538-5968.

-- Marlene Parrish




As the turkeys were lined up on the Chatham Village buffet, Spampinato briefed the volunteer carvers, one behind each turkey. "First remove the breasts. Cut right down along the breastbone, then sideways to release the breast halves," he said. "Get 20 slices on each side. We'll carve out the dark meat next. Everybody should get some skin, too."

Whoa, not so fast. There were two distinct food stations. Diners were instructed to pick up a white plate and pile it with potluck side dishes, most chosen with a nod to Pilgrim preferences. Some standouts were Indian and whole corn puddings, cranberry sauce, succotash, sweet potatoes, a whole smoked steelhead, smoked oysters, sage stuffing, roasted root vegetables, hard cider, and pumpkin and apple pies. Giblet gravy and seasonings were on the tables.

In the other line, diners picked up a black plate where slices of turkey were carefully placed in clockwise rotation. Served separately and without seasonings, the turkeys could be tasted, compared and savored.

Going through the turkey carcass conga line, the first thing diners noticed was body conformation. The heritage birds were well proportioned, but not close to the curvy large breast standard. They had prominent, humpy breast bones and their sinewy drumsticks stuck straight ahead. A few dark pin feathers poked out here and there on the wild bird. There was an even balance of light to dark meat.

The Broadbreasted White had a breast that was high and rounded -- the goal of every Wonder Bra. The skin was thin and pale, with nary a pin feather to mar its creamy surface.

The almond-light meat of the wild and heritage turkeys contrasted with their dark meat. Dark, as in the color of cappuccino. The skin was thick, often tough. The meat's texture was firm, with a good chew, but in no way tough. It was richly flavored, succulent and juicy.

Most people had a favorite among the heritage turkeys, although flavor differences were subtle, and a sip of pinot noir or zinfandel affected individual palates.

The Broadbreasted White? It was white all over and the skin had little chew, according to Bernie Linner, of Monongahela, who related the general consensus of the 65 tasters. The meat was soft, and almost mushy by comparison with the others. And flavor? Tasted just like chicken.

The breeder's turn

Bill Yockey, a Mt. Lebanon native, is an accidental turkey breeder. He works for Wesbury United Methodist Retirement Community in Meadville as a clinical social worker.

He owned property in Linesville, and he'd get up there once a week or so to mow the lawn. Then a neighbor suggested that Yockey acquire some sheep to do the lawn mowing. Yockey read up on sheep and bought 10. Lawn mowing solved.

Next, the neighbor suggested that Yockey raise turkeys. Yockey countered he didn't know a thing about turkeys. The neighbor dryly suggested that Yockey should buy another set of books and read up. He did, and you can guess what happened. He hasn't yet quit his day job, although he now breeds and raises heritage turkeys.

"I chose birds on the critical list. My goal is to help maintain the survival of the varieties and gene pools," Yockey says. He raises Jersey Buffs, Narragansetts and Midget Whites.

Bill Yockey watches a Narragansett turkey strut by at his farm in Linesville, Crawford County. The Narragansett is the oldest turkey variety in the United States. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

His turkeys are free-range and hardy, but strictly speaking, they are not organic. "The birds are pastured, not penned. They can graze, fly and breed naturally," Yockey says. "The differences in taste are not just a case of genetics, but because of their varied diet. They get a special protein-balanced diet in three stages -- baby, grower and finisher food.

"But they have the run of the place, grazing on bugs, worms and grubs. They eat a lot of grass, too, which gives them higher levels of those good omega-3 fatty acids. Turkeys are curious and can get into mischief. They occasionally fly up onto the porch and eat the cat food."

Yockey gave a brief history of turkeydom.

"There are only five real species of turkeys, but with different varieties of the same breed," he said. "When you breed two similar-looking turkeys, and one of the baby chicks looks different, it is the result of double recessive genes. These different chicks are called sports, and they will breed true.

"Colonists brought turkeys with them in 1629. Some of these turkeys escaped, bred with wild varieties and were plentiful by 1700. The original New England turkey, the Narragansett, is thought to be the first turkey domesticated in the U.S. The Bronze, Bourbon Reds and others then 'sported out.' "

Yockey told of two big pushes in turkey farming. "In the 1930s and 1940s, researchers tried to develop a broad-breasted version of the Bronze, working to get a meatier and heavier bird. They eventually produced the Broadbreasted White, the most common turkey we have today."

After years of engineering, the breed has morphed into a bird that cannot run, fly or mate. They are artificially inseminated, because even if old Tom wanted to get romantic, his huge chest would keep him too far away.

"One reason the meat of the Broadbreasted White is often dry is because they are fed pelleted feed, nothing natural, and they are harvested young, bred to be ready for slaughter when they are 4 and 5 months, when the meat just hasn't developed yet. When the life of the bird is short, it never matures and puts on the layer of fat. That's why the dry commercial birds have to be injected with liquid. Home cooks, then, are instructed to brine them to get some flavor and moisture back into them."

Yockey's birds are harvested at 7 to 8 months or later. "The Jersey Buff and the Narragansett we ate tonight were 18 months old."

The second push in turkey breeding was to get a smaller bird, Yockey said. "The Midget White was developed in the 1950s because of the growing market for small, meaty turkeys. It's about 10 pounds for a hen, 16 for a tom. I grow them because they are conveniently small, and there's an increasing demand for them. The second year I raised Midget Whites, I think I was the second largest breeder in the United States. I had all of 15."

The Beltsville Small White turkey was developed around the same time. The goal also was to produce a meaty, early maturing and easily grown bird for home and small scale production. Although this bird was a real hit with home cooks, it was not well received by the hotel and restaurant trade. Too small, they said. Within 20 years, it was almost extinct.

"Farm-raised wild turkey sounds like an oxymoron, but it's not," Yockey says. "They are raised in huge multi-acre pens covered with netting to keep the birds from flying away. They look like circus tents.

"That bird we sampled was a 2-year-old wild tom turkey."

In the last two years, interest in heritage birds has been significant. But farmers will raise only as many of them as they know they can sell, and they are not inexpensive. Raised to order, the turkeys must be ordered near the beginning of the year. Otherwise, customers risk the chance that the turkey will be sold out.

Yockey predicts he will sell 150 turkeys this year, holding some back to act as breeders. "Cradle to table, that's me," he says. "Next year, I hope to sell 500 or more. I'm taking orders now."

Townline Farm Poultry Reserve, Linesville, Pa. Phone: 1-877-632-9242 or 1-814-683-4756. William B. Yockey raises heritage breeds of turkey: Midget Whites, Narragansetts and Jersey Buffs. They are $2.75 per pound. Phone: 1-877-632-9242

Web site: www.townlinefarm.com.

E-mail: buyturkey@townlinefarm.com.

Marlene Parrish is a Mount Washington freelancer and a founding member of Slow Food.



Wild turkeys are extraordinarily lean, making them a challenge for cooks. The best cooking method is to put the turkey in a roasting bag and cook in a preheated 325-degree oven until a meat thermometer reaches 165 degrees. That's approximately 10 to 12 minutes per pound for unstuffed; 12 to 14 minutes per pound for stuffed. Remove the bird from the oven and let it sit at room temperature until the thermometer reads 170 degrees. Carve the bird as you would a domestic turkey. It will have both light and dark meat.


Chef Leonard Spampinato of Aromas Fine Catering suggests preparing turkeys without stuffing. These are his roasting guidelines: 6 to 16 pounds, 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Over 16 pounds, 12 to 15 minutes per pound. Do not cover the birds with foil, he cautions, or they will steam, not roast.

For the turkey:

For the pan sauce:

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Rinse the turkey and pat dry. Melt butter in a small saucepan. Allow butter to cool to room temperature.

While the butter is cooling, season the turkey. Rub the minced garlic over the entire turkey, including the underside. Brush butter over the entire bird. Then season with thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Place the bay leaf and parsley stems inside the cavity. Put the turkey in a roasting pan and place in the preheated oven to roast for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees. Roast the bird for 3 hours and 30 minutes to 5 hours (see roasting guidelines above), or until a thermometer registers 165 degrees. Be sure to place the thermometer into a thigh and avoid touching the bone.

Transfer the turkey to a platter and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving. While the turkey is resting, prepare the sauce.

Preparing the pan sauce: Dissolve the cornstarch in one cup of cold chicken stock. Pour the fat and juices from the roasting pan into a container. Let the juices settle to the bottom and skim the fat from the top. Place the roasting pan on top of the stove over medium heat.

Add the juices back to the pan along with the remaining 4 cups of chicken stock (about 1/4 cup for every pound of turkey).

Bring the liquid to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan to release the browned drippings on the bottom. Thicken the sauce by whisking in the cornstarch-stock mixture. When the sauce returns to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for about 5 minutes.

Adjust the seasonings and strain through a sieve. The sauce is now ready to serve. Carve the turkey and pass the sauce.

Aromas Fine Catering, Inc.