Posted 11/6/2003 1:10 AM     Updated 11/6/2003 6:41 AM

'Heritage' turkeys bring that old taste home

LINDSBORG, Kan. Those who say that a boy and his dog represent the purest expression of loyalty haven't witnessed the bond between a man and his turkeys. (Related gallery: Raising terrific turkeys)

Frank Reese Jr. has been known to massage the stuffy sinuses of his gobblers and help them, in effect, blow their beaks. "It's pretty gross," he says, needlessly.

He gives names to a few prizewinners in his flock of 3,000, and one called Charlie received a proper burial beneath a statue of St. Francis in the yard of his Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch.

But all of that is just poultry feed compared to Reese's most heroic endeavor: He is a leader of a growing movement to save from extinction the magnificently hued, flavorful turkey varieties our forefathers enjoyed. Along with diversifying the turkey gene pool, Reese wants to help restore a lost slice of tradition to the American dinner table.

With environmental activists, cultural historians, cutting-edge cooks and even Martha Stewart aiding the cause, he and his brethren just might succeed. Heading into the holidays, "heritage turkeys" are becoming increasingly available through mail order, upscale restaurants, farmers' markets and specialty stores.

"We're trying to preserve not just the birds but also the heritage of turkey farming," says Reese, 50, who descends from four generations of livestock breeders.

He and about 30 other small-scale breeders and hatcheries have seen that heritage usurped by the forces of agribusiness since the end of World War II. Today, turkey production is controlled by a handful of giant companies, and the only birds that matter commercially are those of a single variety the 269 million genetically engineered Broadbreasted Whites that Americans will devour this year.

From roughly the time of the Pilgrims up through the 1950s, however, the domesticated poultry population was far more diverse. A robust variety called the Standard Bronze, a descendant of the American wild turkey and domesticated European varieties, gave birth to offshoots such as Bourbon Reds, Jersey Buffs, Slates, Black Spanish, Royal Palms, Narragansetts and White Hollands. The birds were prized for their beautiful colors and feather patterns and strutted proudly upright and flew awkwardly across the feedlots of small farms. One of them appeared in roasted form in Norman Rockwell's now-iconic Freedom From Want painting.

But after World War II, consumers stopped wanting what are now called "heritage varieties." The age of mass production had arrived, and the turkey industry developed techniques to quickly and inexpensively produce birds with abnormally plump breasts.

These birds reach slaughter weight in 10 to 16 weeks, compared with almost twice that long for heritage breeds. Raised in temperature-controlled barns, most commercial birds never see the light of day and have lost the ability to fly or reproduce. (They're artificially inseminated.)

These production techniques affect flavor as well. Because the commercial birds' diet is carefully controlled, they achieve a consistent taste that pleases the masses but is often derided by gourmands as bland. The older varieties, which scratched for bugs, worms and grass to supplement their feed, exercised their muscles and put on layers of fat when the weather turned cold, resulting in meat with a firm texture and rich flavors.

But science has created low-cost, perfect-looking birds, and the public loves them.

"I'm not down on (mass producers) at all," Reese says. "They are meeting a demand. The science is pretty phenomenal."

So is the pricing. Because heritage producers operate on a comparatively small scale, and some hand-feed their flocks expensive organic meal, they have to charge $4 to $6 a pound. Commercial producers can charge $1 a pound or less.

That economy of scale allowed mass producers to become so efficient that all other varieties became commercially obsolete within a generation. By 1997, only 1,335 breeding birds were left, according to a study by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a non-profit preservation group. Eight heritage varieties were put on the ALBC's "critical" list, meaning fewer than 500 breeding birds existed in North America.

Even more worrisome, the study showed that fewer than 20 hatcheries and serious breeders were keeping the flame, along with an unknown number of hobbyists. Serious breeders such as Reese and Michael Walters of Stilwell, Okla., try to create flocks that conform to precise standards of appearance and form set in the 1870s. But like all small-scale farmers, they're limited by time, space and money, especially given the almost-microscopic market for their product.

Two years ago, however, the tide began shifting. A group called Slow Food USA, whose mission is to preserve endangered aspects of food culture, took note of the heritage breeds and launched a project to generate publicity, encourage farmers to raise the varieties and link them up with consumers.

"We decided that turkeys, more than any other food product, had suffered a loss in taste, so we decided to try to create markets for turkeys the way they used to be and should be," Slow Food USA director Patrick Martins says.

Then New York Times food writer Marian Burros, in an article detailing her search for the country's best-tasting turkey, chose a Bourbon Red as her favorite and mentioned the Slow Food project, creating a food-world buzz.

Last year, Slow Food contacted about 30 farmers, including Reese and Walters, and agreed to make their birds available to Slow Food members and other interested consumers. They sold about 1,000 birds by mail order and 4,000 more through local markets last fall. A handful of restaurants began serving them for Thanksgiving and will do so again this year.

"The project worked," Martins says. "People didn't need much convincing. They were going to eat turkey anyway, so why not order one their ancestors ate?"

Available by mail order

This year, Slow Food hopes to sell about 1,500 birds by mail and 8,500 through local markets. The farmers who supplied them last year are creating their own local consumer bases by appealing to food lovers, health-food fans and others with an interest in sustainable agriculture. And a few national mail-order sources, including Dean & DeLuca and D'Artagnan, now carry the birds.

"My whole reason for doing this is to help find a niche in the market again, because I think these birds have a right to stay on this earth," Reese says, who works full time as a nurse anesthetist. He'll never be able to easily compete, but for him, that's beside the point: "The Standard Bronze turkey was the Thanksgiving turkey of America for almost 150 years."

Says Walters, "People are becoming more aware of what they eat, and that interest will continue to grow." Three years ago, he sold about 40 heritage birds, mostly to locals, and processed them himself. But now that word has spread, his Walters Hatchery operation is incorporated and made about 1,000 birds available nationally for the holidays. He maintains a breeding flock of 300 and is confident there is enough profit potential to allow the company to grow.

The idea has caught on in smaller ways, as well, with people ordering a few eggs and raising some varieties in their backyards. Among them is novelist Barbara Kingsolver, author of the best-selling The Poisonwood Bible. She raised five Bourbon Reds last year and plans to do so next year at her new home.

"It felt like a calling," she says. "We fed our turkeys as well as we fed our children. Fed them organic grain, allowed them to range."

When the birds were slaughtered for the holidays, "we had a lot of guests over, and everyone found an amazing difference in taste. The meat was better than any they'd tasted before."

Martha Stewart features heritage birds

The momentum is building: Producers of Martha Stewart's syndicated TV show ordered Reese's turkeys for segments to run Tuesday and Nov. 21 (in most markets; check local listings). Neiman Marcus says it's considering offering heritage birds. And a recent census by the ALBC showed 4,275 breeding birds are in the USA, a threefold increase over 1997.

In addition to preserving a slice of Americana and providing new thrills for foodies, larger issues are at stake, namely the lack of genetic diversity in the American turkey supply. "Any time you rely on one gene pool for anything, the future for that product is precarious," Martins says. "A perfect example is the potato famine in Ireland. If there had been a wider genetic pool of potatoes, there would have been more chance of having a variety that was resistant to the disease that wiped out the crop."

ALBC researcher Marjorie Bender says a corner has been turned: The Bourbon Red is off the "critical" list. But she cautions that because there are still so few breeders with significant flocks, a coyote attack or a tornado could wipe out years of progress.

"We're not out of the woods," Bender says. "For us, success means getting all of these birds into the recovery category. Success to me does not necessarily mean getting all these birds in top grocery stores because we then replay the current scene of production models. Patience is important."

As Reese prepares to send about 1,600 birds to an Ohio processing plant to fill holiday orders, he's still worried about the future but content that he has done right by his flock. "I'm happy knowing that my birds got to run and be free and have sex and scratch for worms and at least have some life on earth."

And for that, in their way, the birds give thanks.