A Thanksgiving-Related Question
Once, when I lived in Boston, I was chased along Beacon Street by a wild turkey. If you're not familiar with Beacon Street, it's quite a large street that passes through Brookline, near where I lived. The aboveground metro line runs along it, and it has plenty of car and foot traffic. Being from Los Angeles, I wasn't accustomed to being chased by wild turkeys or seeing wild turkeys on streets in general so, as I'm sure you can imagine, I was quite surprised and, frankly, frightened. Turkeys, especially male turkeys, are larger and more threatening than you would think! Plenty of people were walking along the street around me and not one of them stopped or so much as blinked an eye as I passed giving sidelong glances of terror, the turkey in hot pursuit. I felt that he was following me in a menacing kind of way. When I stopped, he approached me quickly. So I kept walking, and he followed close behind. I didn't know what to do! Eventually, I stopped at a corner and waited for the light to change with a set of other people. He chose one of them to terrorize, and followed them across the street. I was safe. And flabbergasted.
In a culture where most of our holiday traditions reflect almost nothing about the true meaning of the occasion, the turkey offers a refreshing authenticity. Turkeys are native to the Americas! And it is believed that turkey was indeed a part of the original Thanksgiving celebration. But, I think we all know that no one was eating a giant Butterball during that three day fete. The turkeys eaten at the original celebration would have been truly wild, truly free-range. Probably, their meat was gamey, slightly tough, and a little stringy. Yet, that was where the journey to our native heritage breed turkeys began.
While all turkeys descend from two main species, there exist several different turkey breeds. According to the Livestock Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving heritage breeds, a breed is "a group of animals that share a common link of history, original ancestors (foundation), and overall body type, all of which work together to result in a reasonable degree of genetic uniformity." What that means is that, basically, breeds are developed from the same species but differ throughout the world based on the circumstances for which they were selected and bred by farmers. In the cold of Massachusetts, turkeys were soon domesticated for use by colonists. Over the years, they selected and bred those who survived the cold, proved to be good foragers, and provided them the best meat. That is how American heritage breeds like the Black Turkey, and the Bourbon Red came around.
Though they seem to be regaining popularity, many heritage turkey breeds are still in danger. We have the Broad Breasted White Turkey to thank for that or, rather, the people who created him. The breed was developed to fit into industrial production systems, selected for quick growth and massive breast meat- the thing people most want for Thanksgiving. The turkeys get so big, in fact, that they can't even mate on their own, and so have to be artificially inseminated. If you buy a Butterball at Thanksgiving, or any other turkey that isn't specifically labeled "heritage breed," the broad breasted white is almost certainly what you are buying.
With climate change looming and unpredictable weather becoming the norm, it's more important than ever to maintain hearty heritage breeds that have been selected for their survival skills. When we lose heritage breeds, we lose hundreds (and for some breeds thousands) of years of selection and adaptation on the part of our ancestors. Furthermore, when we replace heritage breeds with weak industrially adapted breeds, we weaken the security of our food future, making us vulnerable to the specific set of conditions in which they can survive. So, this Thanksgiving, it's important to try to find a heritage bird, if turkey is what you want to have. Yes, they cost more, but you're voting for a more secure future when you do!