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The Heritage Turkey

Heritage turkeys—rare, old breeds that are part of our nation’s history—are valued for their beautiful plumage and wonderful flavor. Consider adding one to your Thanksgiving celebration this year.

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Photography by: Marcus Nilsson
The White Holland turkeys at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, New York, spend their days roaming in the pasture.

I have always tried to raise a few beautiful heritage turkeys for my Thanksgiving table. The poults are ordered early in the year for June or July delivery and are then put in their own free-range pen next to the chicken coops. They are fed organic corn and pelletized food and all sorts of kitchen vegetable scraps, greens from the garden, and even grass cuttings, which they adore. By November, the toms are about 30 pounds; the hens weigh in at about 19 to 24 pounds.

 

Last year I did not grow my own birds, but I knew several local farmers who were raising heritage turkeys. The always-inspiring Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture—a nonprofit education center in nearby Pocantico Hills, New York—had about 250 heritage turkeys for sale.

 

We visited Craig Haney, the livestock farm director at Stone Barns, which has raised several heritage breeds, including Standard Bronze, Black Spanish, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red. We toured the clean, open barns where the turkeys spend their nights, and observed the “turkey promenade” to the grassy pastures where they spend their days.

 

The real payoff is, of course, on Thanksgiving Day, when the pristine and gorgeous birds are served on giant turkey platters. Thanksgiving at my home is always a big deal, usually attended by 30 to 40 friends and family members. Variety is key, but I never throw all tradition to the winds. There are always several delicious stuffings and dressings to choose from. Please try my newest one, incorporating butternut squash—you will love it.

Fine Feathered Friends

By choosing a heritage bird, you are helping to protect the cultural legacy of the old breeds and to keep genetic diversity for the future. Here, a selection of birds raised at Stone Barns Center; for more information, visit stonebarnscenter.org. To learn more about heritage turkeys, go to livestockconservancy.org.

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Photography by: Marcus Nilsson

White Holland
One of the rarer heritage breeds available today, the White Holland has snow-white feathers and was first recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1874.

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Photography by: Marcus Nilsson

Narragansett (hen)
A descendant of turkeys brought to America from Europe centuries ago, the Narragansett was developed in Rhode Island. Young hens weigh about 14 pounds.

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Photography by: Marcus Nilsson

Narragansett (tom)
Young Narragansett toms weigh about 23 pounds. This turkey has a distinctive black, gray, tan, and white pattern.

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Photography by: Marcus Nilsson

Standard Bronze
This breed originated as a cross between turkeys brought from Europe by early settlers and the wild turkeys found here.

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