Thursday, October 22, 2009

Let's talk turkey

I've been sitting here with my roasted turkey breast, gravy, baked sweet potato, and hot, crispy bread, trying to figure out what to write about for Fight Back Friday. I haven't baked anything lately, other than bread, and I shared that last week. I am not going to talk about the fact that my son made chocolate chip cookies a couple days ago, although it is very rewarding to teach your children to cook. And although I've been thinking about starting my holiday baking, I haven't started yet. What could I possibly write about?

Sigh. Hold on while I grab another piece of this heritage turkey breast. It is really delicious. Seriously, it is way better than the broad-breasted turkeys that we raise. Holy smokes! This is the most delicious turkey I've eaten in years. Hmm. That sounds familiar. Oh yeah, John from Milwaukee said the same thing to me a couple years ago after he bought one of our heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. Even though we raise heritage turkeys, I haven't had one in a couple of months, because last year we raised a few broad-breasted for customers who wanted naturally raised turkeys, but they wanted one in the 20-25-pound range, and our heritage turkeys just don't get much bigger than about 16 pounds. We did have an 18-pounder once, but I'm not making any promises based on an Arnold Schwartzeturkey. But I digress. The last couple turkeys we had were broad breasted. The big boys are good, but they just don't compare to the flavor of a heritage turkey. We are only raising heritage turkeys this year, a decision that makes me very happy as I savor the amazing flavor of this turkey.

So, what exactly is a heritage turkey? Well, it's a turkey that can fly and mate naturally. Yes, I am saying that supermarket turkeys cannot fly, and they cannot mate naturally. (If you want me to be blunt, yes, they are all the product of artificial insemination.) Big Ag has developed a turkey with a breast so large that it can't lift its body off the ground to fly like a real bird. And its breast is so big, the male can't get close enough to the female to breed. Talk about unsustainable agriculture. These birds would be extinct in one generation without the help of humans to reproduce. Since they're big and lumbering, they also can't protect themselves from predators. It's all about $$$. Americans like white meat, so Big Ag is just giving the people what they want -- more breast meat. As one man said, "Who cares about turkeys' sex life," when I told him about the origin of supermarket turkeys.

Heritage turkeys also happen to come in a rainbow of beautiful colors, but that's just gravy. Supermarket birds are all white, because you can't see any pin feathers that might break off under the skin. If a feather breaks off under the skin of a black turkey or a bronze turkey, it looks dirty, and American consumers can't handle it. Between you and me, if you ever were to get a heritage turkey, and it happened to have a feather or two under the skin, just take your tweezers and pull it out as if it were growing on your eyebrow.

But color does not make a heritage turkey. There are broad-breasted bronze turkeys; and there are midget white turkeys and white Holland turkeys, which are heritage breeds. The white heritage turkeys are really small though, which is why we've never raised them. Every now and then I see a small farmer advertising broad-breasted bronze as a heritage turkey, and that just ain't so. There is also a standard bronze turkey, so some people could be honestly mistaken about what they're raising. Although there is not a legal definition of heritage turkey, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy has defined heritage by the above criteria -- can fly and can mate naturally. Those big boys can't fly or mate naturally, regardless of what color their feathers are.

Okay, I am trying to resist the urge to slurp up this gravy. It looks like cream cheese frosting and is so tasty! I made it with the pan drippings and flour and goat milk -- that's it! I think this turkey might be especially tasty because he was a year old. He was hatched last summer and was much too small for Thanksgiving. We should have butchered him for Easter, but we didn't get around to it until summer. We took all four of those boys to Arthur and had the Amish do it for us. The sad thing about those supermarket turkeys is that they're practically babies. A 10-pound turkey in the supermarket is probably 2-3 months old, and a bird just does not develop any flavor in that short amount of time. It's the same thing with the chickens, but that's a post for another day.

You do have to know a little about cooking to deal with a year-old bird. You can't just roast the whole thing or you will do some serious dental damage trying to eat a drumstick. You can roast the breast, but the legs and thighs will need to be cooked in simmering hot water for a few hours. I only cooked the breast tonight. I'll do the legs and thighs in a couple days for casseroles and soups. One of the things that people love about heritage turkeys is the dark meat. People just rave about the dark meat. Even I like the dark meat. It's the color of milk chocolate, so maybe that has some mental effect on me?

So, what am I going to post for Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday? Turkeys? Nah. There's nothing to it. A spring-hatched turkey roasts up beautifully for Thanksgiving. I just pop it in the oven at 300 degrees until the internal temperature is about 160, and then I make the gravy by whisking together the dripping and flour (equal amounts), turn up the heat in the skillet and add milk until it reaches the consistency I want. (I like it pretty thick.) But this is hardly cooking at all. Tonight I baked some sweet potatoes and a loaf of that bread I mentioned last week. Even the "undomestic goddess" could handle this.

If you'd like to get a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving, it might be too late for this year, but you can always call farmers in your area. I'd suggest that you check out the list from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They have a PDF on their homepage that you can download. I used to recommend Local Harvest but can't do that until they clean up an issue with the pictures some of their producers are using. I contacted them a couple months ago to complain that some people say they're selling heritage turkeys, but the pictures are clearly broad-breasted. The pictures are still there, which is very frustrating. A heritage turkey does not look like Dolly Parton, regardless of how you raise it. The breast bone is at least visible in the center of the breast of a heritage turkey; usually it's more prominent than the meat. And if they claim to have heritage turkeys over 20 pounds, I'm going to be asking a lot of questions.

I'm not even getting into the whole "free range" issue. (I can't believe some people call birds free range when they spend their whole life in a building.) That's a huge benefit of buying local -- you can visit the farm and see how the turkeys are raised. That's the simplest advice I have for you on that issue.

Well, look at the time. I've gone on and on about heritage turkeys and still don't have any kind of recipe for Food Renegade. Well, if you head on over to Fight Back Friday, I'm sure you'll find plenty of recipes and food chat from other bloggers.


Kara said...

Fantastic info! I am TOTALLY CLUELESS when it comes to turkeys and glad to know all this! I'm also completely jealous of your homesteading lifestyle...we want to do the same thing but are still a few years away from being able to.

Deborah Niemann said...

We were saying that for NINE years before we did it! Don't give up. If you really want to do it, you'll figure it out.

Deborah Niemann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
momanna98 said...

Where exactly did you take your turkeys? We have 6 roosters that we need to butcher. We called the processing plant in Arthur, but they have a min of 24 birds. We are desperate to get rid of these roosters because they are very mean to our hens.

Deborah Niemann said...

momanna98, sorry to hear Arthur now has a minimum. The first batch of birds we took down there seven years ago was two roosters and six or seven turkeys. They used to charge a little more per bird if you had less than 20 turkeys or 25 chickens.

There is another poultry processing place that I heard opened about a year ago. They're an hour south of Arthur. Since they're new, maybe they're not that busy, so they don't have a minimum? They have a website, but I can't remember the name. I googled and couldn't find it either.

Michelle said...

Even though I'm a vegetarian, I loved this informative post and the clever way you wrote it. Preach on!

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb! Got a good recipe that's easy for me to cook a 5-pound turkey (albeit from the grocery store)? How would that dude like it if Big Ag messed with HIS sex life or any given freedom?

Deborah Niemann said...

momanna98 -- I found the new poultry processing plant's website:
They don't mention a minimum.
Good luck!

Deborah Niemann said...

Denise, I haven't had a supermarket turkey in 21 years, so I can't really help with that. I normally just roast my turkeys like I said in this post. I have a lot of delicious recipes that I use for leftovers. I'll probably post a couple after Thanksgiving.

momanna98 said...

Thank you so much, Deborah!

Suburban Correspondent said...

One of our friends, many years ago, had a job as a turkey-jerker. It involved exactly what you are thinking; and because of your post, I now know why they had to hire someone to do that.

It wasn't the best time of his life, that's for sure.


What an interesting post, Deborah. Lots of great info and so interesting to read as well. I, too, envy your lifestyle. I'm a homesteading wannabe. But I'm 67 and my husband is a musician who has less than a cursory interest in critters and farming. So I will feed of your great posts.

Laura said...

I liked meeting your cows in "Love them cows!". I like just learning about the daily life of living on a farm like yours.

LindaG said...

I am so glad I found your blog. We are retiring in a year or two and will be... homesteading, I guess it's called now.

One thing I had been wondering, was if anyone actually ate their heritage breed animals. Yes, I am that clueless, haha.

I was thinking we might try a Jersey Buff, if we can find them being offered.

Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I love the internet!

Deborah Niemann said...

Yes, as strange as it sounds, the way to save a heritage turkey is to eat them! You only need one tom for every 10-20 hens, and if you have too many, they'll just kill each other. The same is true for chickens, so you might as well eat them. Sand Hill Preservation in Iowa has Jersey Buffs. Good luck!

steve said...

Of my 9 Narragansette turkeys 6 are toms. So far I have had no trouble with fighting. They are all different ages and seem to know who is in charge. They free range so everyone has plenty of room


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