October 8, 2003

A turkey like none you've ever tasted
This year, it's possible to get a heritage bird for Thanksgiving.

By Valli Herman-Cohen, Times Staff Writer

We've been hearing the complaints for decades: Modern turkey is a shadow of its former self a dry, tasteless excuse for what used to be a flavorful, succulent bird.

And for the last couple of years, we've been hearing about heritage turkeys old-fashioned varieties that are the heirloom tomatoes of the poultry world.

Now, you can find out for yourself.

A small group of farmers and conservationists are reviving heritage turkeys. With the marketing support of Slow Food USA, about 30 farmers nationwide are raising varieties such as the Narragansett, Standard Bronze, Black and Bourbon Red.

The familiar Broadbreasted White, bred for its prodigious quantity of white meat and its ability to grow quickly to enormous size, is all that's been available to most of us. Allowed to grow older than these commercial birds, heritage turkeys put on an extra layer of fat. Proponents say this gives them deeper flavor and that exercise gives them firmer texture.

Heritage turkey breeding programs are so new, and the orders are required so far in advance (when you order one, it's basically custom-raised for you), that only a few thousand birds are available to restaurants or home cooks throughout the country each year. It's too late to place an order directly with a California farm for a fresh bird for this Thanksgiving, but there are a few options open to those who want a heritage turkey.

Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan., still has a small number of Standard Bronze birds available; 200 to 300 remained last week. The deadline for ordering them is Oct. 27. Small production, organic feed and longer life spans raise the price: A 10- to 12-pound bird is $69 and anything bigger than 24 pounds is $169. They're flash-frozen just before shipping by FedEx in an insulated box; shipping is $25 for second day air or $50 overnight, timed to arrive on the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Information and order forms are available at http://www.slowfoodusa.org , or by phoning (212) 965-5641, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time.

Select Bristol Farms stores will have fresh heritage turkeys (about 200 total) available for special order beginning in early November, said Pete Davis, senior meat manager. This is the first time the grocer was able to secure a supply. They're Narragansetts and Bourbon Reds from Pitman Farms in Madera, Calif., and will sell for $5.99 a pound.

For the first time, Angeli Caffé chef Evan Kleiman is opening her 62-seat Melrose Avenue restaurant on Thanksgiving, when she'll serve heritage turkeys raised at Pitman Farms (www.marysturkeys.com).

"They're completely different," said Kleiman, who leads the L.A. chapter of Slow Food. "The dark meat is like chocolate. It's so deeply colored. It has a beautiful, deep turkey flavor without being gamy." Campanile will also feature the premium turkeys on its Thanksgiving menu.