On a Maryland farm a few autumns ago, I picked out a glossy-feathered turkey. This was no frozen supermarket bird: It was a variety called Slate, one of several "heritage breeds" clawing their way back from the brink of extinction.
Nearly all the roughly 250 million turkeys raised commercially in the United States are of a single breed, Broad Breasted White. Heritage turkeys are smaller, slower growing — and rare. In 1997 the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy found only 1,335 breeding heritage birds. That number has since grown more than tenfold. Chefs like Dan Barber of Blue Hill in Greenwich Village prize pasture-raised heritage turkeys for the deep flavor that comes from their vigorous lifestyle and varied diet. "The saying 'A happy bird is a tasty bird' isn't about psychology," says Barber. "It's about physiology."
Strutting in its field, my bird did look happy. At least for a while. Supporting heritage breeds means coming to terms with the paradox of their existence: To preserve them, we must eat them, since farmers won't raise animals they can't sell. Choosing a heritage breed meant I was helping to ensure its survival.
And taste? The white meat was tender and grassy; the rich thighs boasted a nutlike earthiness. I could picture my grandparents eating such a noble bird, as surely they must have. The food on our plates that holiday was a gift from a past we nearly lost forever. And for that I was indeed thankful.
Roast Heritage Turkey with Rosemary Maple Butter
To protect a heritage turkey's smaller, leaner breast, farmer and food writer Sandra Kay Miller roasts her birds with flavored butter under the skin. To make your own, bring butter to room temperature and whip together with maple syrup and minced rosemary.
1/2 pound butter
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon mince fresh rosemary
1. Rub turkey inside and out with sea salt and pepper. Loosen skin and insert rosemary maple butter (recipe below) between meat and skin.
2. Set bird on wire rack in deep roasting pan. Add about 4 cups broth. Tent pan with parchment paper coated on both sides with cooking oil and affixed to pan with strip of foil on each end (or use clean, oiled wooden clothespins).
3. Preheat oven to 425° F. Roast until thigh temperature reaches 150° F. (The USDA recommends 165° F.) Remove paper for last 30 minutes to crisp skin. Rest 10 to 15 minutes before carving.